Liberal transparency reforms subject to 'review' next year

The Liberal government was elected partly on promises to reform the Access to Information Act, but there will be no changes until next year at the earliest.

Trudeau has pressed for reform of access to information since 2014, but nothing planned for 2015

Scott Brison, president of the Treasury Board, is responsible for ushering in promised access-to-information reforms. The government now says its election commitments in this area will be subject to a "review" in 2016. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Delivery of a key Liberal promise on transparency is likely months away, as an election commitment to reform the Access to Information Act has morphed into a "review" of the legislation starting next year.

During the election campaign, Leader Justin Trudeau said a Liberal government would end fees for processing information requests; give the information commissioner the power to order release of documents; and make ministers' offices subject to the act, among other changes.

But Trudeau's mandate letter to the minister responsible for shepherding the reform, Treasury Board President Scott Brison, backs off from those categorical commitments, most of which the Liberals have been touting since at least June 2014.

The office of Suzanne Legault, information commissioner of Canada, says it is not aware of any immediate changes to the access-to-information system since the Liberals came to power. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
The promise to cut fees disappears altogether from the mandate letter. It says other promises are to be part of a "review" that will include input from Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault and other stakeholders.

And the platform commitment to ensure the act "applies" to ministers' offices, including the Prime Minister's Office, has changed in the mandate letter to "appropriately applies."

A spokesperson for Brison's office says details of the "review" will be announced in the new year, and will include an examination of fees.

"Given the importance of these changes and their complexity, further consideration is required," said Lisa Murphy. "The government will take the time necessary to fully examine all the options."

Trudeau reforms date to 2014

In 2014, Trudeau himself introduced a private member's bill in the House of Commons that proposed reform of the Access to Information Act, including giving order-making power to the commissioner and elimination of most fees. Neither reforms were made contingent on a review, apart from the routine scrutiny of a Commons committee that examines all bills.

"There is no doubt that our current access to information regime is outdated and needs to be updated to reflect governance and technologies in the 21st century," Trudeau told the Commons in 2014. "The world's strongest access to information systems have been updated within the last five years. Ours is stuck in the 1980s."

Trudeau's bill was defeated in April this year on second reading.

A spokeswoman for Legault says the commissioner has not been contacted by the Liberal government on the proposed changes, but expects to meet with Brison "in the near future."

"The information commissioner has not yet been approached regarding a review of the Access to Information (Act)," said Natalie Hall. "She is, however, looking forward to assisting Parliament with this review."

Not aware of any immediate changes to the access system.- Spokesperson for Canada's information commissioner

The Liberal government has quickly implemented some key policies, including the removal of a gag order on government scientists, shutting down a court case about niqabs at citizenship ceremonies and ramping up Syrian refugee processing.

But there has been no directive from the top so far about releasing more documents under freedom-of-information law, a move the U.S. president  made on his first day in office.

On Jan. 21, 2009, Barack Obama directed U.S. agencies that process freedom-of-information requests to err on the side of transparency rather than seek reasons to keep documents secret.

Brison met with all Treasury Board staff on Nov. 9, a few days after being sworn in, and talked generally about transparency but with no specific directions on processing access-to-information requests.

Tories did not deliver commitments

About 5,000 access-to-information requests have been filed since the Liberals came to power on Nov 4. Hall says the information commissioner's office is "not aware of any immediate changes to the access system."

Murphy says the coming review "will consider all the changes and updates that may need to be made to the act, including fees and the application of the act to PMO and ministers' offices."

"The review will also consider what steps need to be taken to ensure a full legislative review every five years. There are several options, including embedding that requirement in the legislation."

Former Treasury Board president Tony Clement said earlier this year that the Conservatives ran out of time to enact promised 2006 reforms. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
The Access to Information Act has been subject to many in-depth reviews, including a lengthy House of Commons report in 1987, a task force evaluation in 2002 and a major investigation delivered by Legault herself in March this year, called Striking the Right Balance for Transparency, with 85 comprehensive recommendations.

The Conservatives under Stephen Harper first came to power in 2006 on a platform that included broad reform of the Access to Information Act, including giving the commissioner order-making powers.

But only one piece of the platform was ever enacted, bringing Crown corporations and other agencies under the act in 2007. Tony Clement, then president of the Treasury Board, said earlier this year the government simply ran out of time before the Oct. 19 election.

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