Canada's federal information watchdog has shared her vision of a 21st-century access regime, and it includes subjecting more of Parliament, including the offices of cabinet ministers and the prime minister, to access to information requests.
In a report tabled in the House of Commons this morning, Suzanne Legault laid out her recommendations on how to modernize the existing Access to Information Act to "strike the right balance for transparency."
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Legault told reporters Tuesday that she wanted to create a system that was "open by default," as opposed to the opposite instinct, often thought to prevail despite the so-called "Open Government" initiatives championed recently by Treasury Board President Tony Clement.
Her recommendations include:
- allowing access requests for all branches of government, including the prime minister's office and cabinet ministers offices (but with major exemptions), as well as previously-secret bodies like the MP-controlled board of internal economy for the House of Commons.
- new sanctions for not disclosing information — from criminal offences to fines and disciplinary hearings.
- stricter limits on when the government can deny the existence of a record.
- elimination of all fees for access requests.
- more timely responses from government, including making it harder to ask for an extension.
- a "general public interest override" for attempted exemptions.
- a statutory obligation to declassify information on a routine basis.
- the disclosure of personal information when there would be no unjustified invasion of privacy, including disclosure to spouses or relatives of deceased individuals on compassionate grounds
- adjudication of appeals by the information commissioner's office, with orders certified as an order of the Federal Court.
- requirement for the government to consult with the information commissioner on all proposed legislation that impacts access to information.
In general, Legault is calling for a shift to a system where the government would proactively publish information that is clearly in the public interest.
As part of this, she also wants to narrow the existing exemption for cabinet confidences to require the disclosure of a wider variety of records, including "purely factual and background information" and records that have been in existence for more than 15 years.
'Shield against transparency'
Legault emphasized that Canadians need access to information to participate in democracy.
"It ensures that citizens can hold politicians and bureaucrats to account for their actions and decisions. However, in reality, the act that was intended to shine a light on the decisions and operations of government has become a shield against transparency," Legault said.
Watchdog group Democracy Watch applauded Legault's recommendations, noting she consulted with the public on the report, and that many organizations have long advocated for some of the changes she's suggesting.
But the recommendations would have to be adopted by Parliament to take effect, leaving it to MPs and senators to strengthen access to information.
Legault said she's made many recommendations in past reports, but none have been accepted by the government.
Trudeau's bill up tonight
The commissioner's report comes just hours before Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau will get his second — and likely final — opportunity to convince his Commons colleagues to back his private member's bid to update the Act to require the department to release data in "machine-readable format."
If adopted, Trudeau's proposal would also shift the onus when it comes to the government's compliance with requests: requiring that "access prevails" in cases where there is uncertainty whether an exception applies to a requested record. His proposal would give the commissioner the power to issue compliance orders.
The bill would also change the rules that govern the secretive all-party committee responsible for overseeing MP expenses and House administration costs to require its meetings, which are currently held behind closed doors, to be open to the public, albeit with "certain exceptions."
After the debate wraps up in the Commons this evening, Trudeau will host a "question-and-answer session" for MPs on his bill, which could go to a vote later this week.
During the first round of debate last November, Conservative MP Dan Albas indicated that the government would not support it, which means it will be defeated unless Conservative backbenchers break rank with cabinet to side with the opposition.
Read the report here: