Politics

Liberals striving for 'balance' on federal transparency, Trudeau says

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says while he is committed to transparency in the federal government, being too forthcoming can hinder the government's ability to wrestle with tough decisions.

Ottawa's changes to the Access to Information Act were widely panned

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to questions during a year-end interview with The Canadian Press in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says while he is committed to transparency in the federal government, being too forthcoming can hinder the government's ability to wrestle with tough decisions.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Trudeau defended the Liberal record on openness, pointing to the publication of ministerial mandate letters and efforts to make more data available through restoration of the long-form census.

Information commissioner Caroline Maynard has criticized the Trudeau government for failing to provide the resources that departments and agencies need to answer the steeply growing number of requests from the public under the Access to Information Act.

Liberal legislative changes to the decades-old law, a key accountability tool, were widely panned as timid and even a step backward.

The government announced a full-scale review of the law last June, but has yet to tell Canadians how they can make their views known.

The prime minister said his commitment to transparency and openness "goes to the heart" of one of the responsibilities of any government.

He suggested the Liberals are faring better than some other administrations, saying there is "a division between governments that do believe in transparency and those who still do not."

"But as we know, the functioning of government requires a combination of openness and accountability and transparency, and an ability to grapple with very difficult questions in a fulsome way."

A government memo marked 'secret' and heavily redacted. (Shanifa Nasser/CBC)

He cited the principle of cabinet secrecy that allows ministers to freely tell him exactly what they think without worrying they will be seen as out of step with the government should it decide to go another way on an issue.

A minister's fear of being perceived as offside "actually weakens our ability to directly have very real deliberations about all the potential paths so we can choose the best one," Trudeau said.

"There's always going to be a balance on it."

COVID-19 being used as an excuse: Maynard

Maynard's predecessor, Suzanne Legault, told MPs in 2016 that the access law, which generally excludes cabinet confidences from disclosure for 20 years, is overly broad and goes beyond what is necessary to protect the ministerial deliberative process.

She recommended changes that would allow the release of purely factual or background information, analyses of problems and policy options, and records 15 or more years old.

Maynard said in September she also wants to see a narrowing of exceptions in the access law, which would result in disclosure of more cabinet-related information and confidential advice drafted by government officials.

In addition, Maynard said she will push for broader coverage of the law, which does not apply to some federal agencies such as cabinet ministers' offices.

Maynard expressed hope the government will not just fine-tune the access system but "really make big changes and bold decisions to improve everything."

Some federal agencies have used the COVID-19 pandemic "as an excuse" to shirk their obligations, with a few institutions even completely closing their access offices, she added.

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