The Liberal government has to make immediate changes to the Access to Information Act or risk alienating voters, warns Canada's information watchdog.
Earlier this week the Canadian Press reported that the Liberal government is delaying promised access to information reforms that would bring ministerial offices under the act.
The government had pledged an initial wave of legislative changes by the end of winter. A spokesperson for Treasury Board President Scott Brison said initial legislative changes and the first full review will begin in 2018.
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During the election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that a Liberal government would end fees for processing information requests, give the information commissioner the power to order the release of documents and make ministers' offices subject to the information act.
So far, one of those promises — waiving most fees — has been checked off.
"I think in terms of ministers' offices, it's an absolute mandatory reform. They have to show leadership and they have to make this amendment as quickly as possible, regardless of the difficulties they're having with it or they may have with it," Information Commissioner of Canada Suzanne Legault told Chris Hall on CBC's The House.
"It's a leadership issue."
"Minister Brison is on record that he's still committed to doing this reform, so let's get on with it because time is actually running out…and people will judge the government on how they are implementing their promises."
Amendments to exemption regime
Before moving ahead with the complicated matter of giving her office order-making powers, Legault is suggesting the Liberals make important tweaks first — such as amending the list of exemptions used to restrict the disclosure of information.
"Exemptions, and the reforms on the exemptions, are actually probably easier for the government to do. There's a lot, a lot, a lot, already written," said Legault, pointing to a provision in British Columbia's act that stipulates a public body should disclose information when it's clearly in the public interest.
She said one of the best arguments for a greater access to information can be found in Canadian journalism.
"[Globe and Mail reporter ] Robyn Doolittle's investigation into the cases of sexual assault across Canada. She obtained the information from police forces across Canada, and it is having a massive impact on policy changes. We're talking about training for judges, we're talking about police forces doing audits to make sure victims of sexual assaults are properly treated," she said.
"The more transparency there is, and the easier it is to access this information, the more we can hold our public institutions to account."
In May, the Liberal government issued an interim directive on openness and waived all fees associated with Access to Information requests, besides the $5 application charge.
On Saturday, Brison said his team is trying to work through some concerns around reforms, including maintaining the independence of the judiciary.
"We've had discussions with Madame Legault and her office, and we are now working through a process in terms of applying the act appropriately to ministers' offices and the prime ministers' offices," he said. "Again, we need to balance the neutrality of the public service, the privacy of Canadians. These are important factors to take into account in any changes we make."