As It Happens

Canada's Access to Information Act has 'never been in worse shape,' CBC's Dean Beeby says

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised investigative reporter Dean Beeby that Canada will fix its Access to Information laws — but Beeby says he'll believe it when he sees it.
CBC News reporter Dean Beeby says Canada's Access To Information Act is broken. (CBC News)

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When CBC News reporter Dean Beeby accepted the Charles Lynch Award in front of political reporters and parliamentarians this weekend, he used his speech to blast the government's failure to reform Canada's Access To Information Act.

"I think we can safely say it's never been in worse shape, ever. This thing is not working and it's working the worst it's ever worked in 33 years," Beeby said at the annual Press Gallery awards in Ottawa on Saturday.

"So in terms of trouble making, that's going to be my self-assigned task over the next few months and years to finally get this damn thing fixed. And I don't want to do it alone. I want you to join me in this once-a-generation task of giving Canadians a law that enforces transparency in their governments. And maybe tonight you can buttonhole the person next to you and say, 'Get the damn job done.'"

But it was Beeby who got buttonholed.

"I came down off the podium and somebody grabbed my shoulder and started shaking my hand and I happened to notice it was the prime minister, so I was kind of impressed by that," Beeby told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"And then he said something to the effect of, 'We're gonna fix this. We're gonna get this job done and we know you will be watching us.' And I said, 'Yes, prime minister, I will be watching.'"

Treasury Board President Scott Brison, tasked with overseeing the process of reforming the act, later approached Beeby to make similar promises. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Treasury Board President Scott Brison both vowed to CBC's Dean Beeby that the Liberal government would reform Canada's Access To Information laws. (Giovanni Isolino/AFP/Getty Images, Chris Wattie/Reuters)

But Beeby — who has made a name for himself by breaking stories via access to information requests — remains skeptical.

Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper made similar promises, he noted, but never followed through.

"We're now 18 months into this government, which also promised broad changes to access to information, and so far, nothing," Beeby said. "So it's very frustrating. A lot of talk, and no action."

Campaign promises delayed 

The Access to Information Act allows people who pay $5 to ask for everything from expense reports and audits to correspondence and briefing notes. Departments are supposed to answer within 30 days or provide valid reasons why they need more time.

However, the system has been widely criticized as slow, out of date and riddled with loopholes that allow agencies to withhold information rather than release it. The law has not been significantly updated since it took effect almost 34 years ago.

"There's been real shenanigans. The bureaucracy knows where the loopholes are and they exploit them," Beeby said.

"Canadians deserve better. Especially this government, which is spending a lot of money going into deficits on infrastructure and things. We need to watch that spending to make sure it is deployed efficiently. And the Access To Information Act is one of our best tools, or should be one of our best tools, for keeping them honest about that spending. And yet this tool has sort of lost its edge."

On the campaign trail, Trudeau repeatedly vowed to reform the law.

Proposed changes include giving the information commissioner the power to order release of government records and ensuring the access law applies to the offices of the prime minister, cabinet members and administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.

But in March, the government announced it was delaying those changes, saying it needed more time to tackle the complex issue.

"I think the bureaucracy has captured this government. I mean, they are reflexively secretive, and I am certain they've come up with a raft of excuses for not improving this act because it might expose more of their work to the public," Beeby said.

"So it really takes leadership in a government to get over the objections of the bureaucracy and I just don't see that leadeship."

With files from Canadian Press