Access watchdog wants power to order release of documents

Canada's information watchdog is seeking more powers as Canada's Access to Information law turns 30. Suzanne Legault says those powers could have helped to prevent the senate expense scandal currently rocking the Harper government.

Suzanne Legault wants access to information laws strengthened

Suzanne Legault, Canada's information commissioner, wants government to revamp the Access to Information Act to give her office greater powers. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

As the Harper government braces itself for a steady drip of damaging details as the Senate expenses scandal winds its way through the courts, it may find itself rueing the day it abandoned one of its key promises in the 2006 election campaign.

That promise — to update the Access to Information Act — is something that Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault is lobbying hard for the government to follow through on.

"The promise has not been kept," Legault said in interview with host Susan Lunn on CBC Radio's The House. "People would think twice about how they spend taxpayers' money when they know taxpayers have access to the details of those expenses."

An update to the act — which came into effect 30 years ago last week — is long overdue, and Legault thinks most Canadians would be surprised to learn that the act doesn't cover all institutions that spend taxpayers' money, including Parliament.

"Canadians should have access to the documents that substantiate expenses that are being expended by parliamentarians," says Legault. "When that is the case, it actually acts as a deterent on behaviour. That's what we've seen over the years, not only in Canada but internationally in terms of having institutions covered by the act."

Canada ranked 55th

The Access to Information Act was a groundbreaking piece of legislation in its day, but today, according to a ranking by the Centre for Law and Democracy, Canada ranks a lowly 55th out of 93 nations regarding access legislation. Legault has recently undertaken a review of the act, something done twice since its inception to no effect.

In the fall, she'll make recommendations to Parliament and it's her hope that the Conservative government, whose commitment to openness and transparency meets mixed reviews, will strenghten the act.

Key changes that Legault wants to see brought in include bringing all institutions that spend taxpayers' money under its umbrella. She also wants to be granted order-making powers. Those powers would give her office more teeth in demanding that government departments comply with orders to hand over requested documents.

Under today's legislation, it's often the Federal Court that is pulled into the process to make departments comply with requests, a process that is too costly for many to pursue.

"Access delayed is access denied," Legault says. "We live in a 24-hour news cycle. Of course when access is delayed it makes a huge difference to the strength, power and relevance of the information in terms of holding our institutions accountable."

Listen to the full interview with Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault on CBC Radio's The House.