When it comes to access to information, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has received a failing grade, says a new report that also urges Canadians to remain vigilant on their freedom of expression.
For the second year running, the report by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has given the government an F minus, saying delays in the release of information lengthened and what was eventually released was less complete than before.
The report, titled "Like Sheep to the Slaughter," points to a Public Works bureaucrat's move to "unrelease" information to The Canadian Press as an example of why Canada now ranks last among five leading democracies when it comes to access to information.
"More than half of the federal institutions surveyed for their performance on access to information ranked below average and five failed outright. The governing party was ruled in contempt of Parliament for failing to produce information about major spending programs," the report states. "All of which may explain why journalists seem to be using the access system less often than in the past."
Inside Politics blog
Despite the government's failing grade on access to information, David McKie says there's room for some hope that Stephen Harper may act on a promise to bring more open government now that he has a majority. Read his blog post.
Statistics in the report say 44 per cent of federal access to information requests aren't met within the required 30-day limit, while it takes an average of 395 days to resolve an ATI complaint.
G20 summit 'abject failure' of free expression
The review also gives an F to security forces and the federal government for calling last summer's G20 Summit in Toronto an "unmitigated success" when the CJFE considered the event where thousands were detained the "most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history."
"The Orwellian concept of creating a 'freedom of expression zone' during the summit set the tone for a long list of violations of that freedom, from refusal to recognize legitimate journalistic credentials to detention of journalists without due process or cause," the report said. "It was not a success but an abject failure."
CJFE board member and journalist Bob Carty said the most important message the report was trying to send is the need for Canadians to remain vigilant on freedom of expression.
"We shouldn't be complacent about our free expression rights here in Canada," said Carty, who was also one of the authors contributing to the 40-page-report.
"The structural problem of access to information on the one hand and the spontaneous events of the G20 summit show areas where we have to be very vigilant."
Other institutions graded
The Supreme Court of Canada received a C grade and a mixed review for its decision to force one journalist to turn over his source material while also recognizing the right to protect sources exists if the media can show it is in the public interest.
Despite the bleak overall showing, the CJFE is hoping the stability of a Conservative majority government will cause Prime Minister Harper to make some positive changes when it comes to access to information and freedom of expression issues.
"There's an opportunity right now for the Harper government to do the right thing to make this a more accessible government," said Carty. "We will be watching the Harper government's performance in deeds not words."
The one area to receive an above-average grade was the Office of the Information Commissioner, with Suzanne Legault given an A minus.
The CJFE notes the office continues to suffer from a lack of power to force disclosures and a weak access law they say is in need of reform. But it also said Legault "is a promoter of open government who shows a willingness to push the boundaries of her limited powers to produce greater access."
The report also recognized retiring House of Commons speaker Peter Milliken for helping to advance free expression rights. It pointed in particular to his "thoughtful, judicious and wise" ruling that found the previous Conservative minority government in contempt of Parliament for failing to release information on the cost of major new programs.
The report is only the CJFE's second one. It plans to expand the categories it evaluates in the future but also continues to sound a cautionary message to all Canadians.
"There is reason for concern," said Carty. "If we drop our guard we better be very careful about where our country and democracy is going."