A TRANSPARENT ATTEMPT The federal Liberals’ new open government critic Scott Simms appears to be still figuring out how the country’s broken access to information system works. But that didn’t stop him from encouraging Tory MPs to vote for proposed reforms to that system in a series of form letters published in newspapers across the country.
Simms’s rookie status showed earlier this month during his first meeting as vice-chair of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.
At that meeting, the Liberal MP asked information commissioner Suzanne Legault if she thought a parliamentary review is necessary “for what you do…of your job in general.”
The response: “Well, we are here. There is a standing committee reviewing the work of my office on a regular basis.”
Simms, who was named open government critic in November, replied, “I told you I was new.”
Nevertheless, less than a week later, he was out pitching the merits of Liberals’ Transparency Act — which would require a statutory review of the Access to Information every five years.
That pitch took the form of nearly identical letters to the editor that, according to the Canadian Newsstand database, were published in at least nine newspapers and called on local Tory MPs to support that bill.
Those letters, which were written in Simms’s capacity as the Liberals’ democratic reform critic, all began in a similar way. For example:
• “Local Member of Parliament Mike Allen couldn’t have been clearer when he said that ‘we will make government more open by strengthening access to information laws;'” (Bugle-Observer)
• “Local Member of Parliament Robert Goguen couldn’t have been clearer when he said that ‘broad exclusions are undesirable in an access to information regime from the perspective of openness and transparency;'” (Times-Transcript)
• “Local Member of Parliament Cheryl Gallant couldn’t have been clearer when she said that ‘we put our words into action … we live within the realms of accountability and transparency;’ (Arnprior Chronicle-Guide)
• “Local Member of Parliament Gerry Ritz couldn’t have been clearer when he said that ‘no aspect of responsible government is more fundamental than having the trust of citizens;'” (Lloydminster Source)
• “Local Member of Parliament Tony Clement couldn’t have been clearer when he said that ‘it is important to make sure that there is transparency for not only members of the House but the people of Canada;'” (Almaguin News)
• “Macleod MP John Barlow couldn’t have been clearer when he said, ‘Accountability and transparency are the hallmark of this government;'” (Macleod Gazette)
• “Local Member of Parliament [Dan Albas] couldn’t have been clearer when he said that what I hear from Canadians is they want more accountability;” (Summerland Review)
• “Local MP Ron Cannan couldn’t have been clearer when he said: Strengthening accountability and transparency was part of the governments promise to Canadians when we were first elected in 2006…We continue to move forward as an open and transparent government;” and (Kelowna Capital News)
• “Local Member of Parliament Rob Moore couldn’t have been clearer when he said that ‘Canadians were demanding more accountability from public office holders and from Parliament, more accountability in the way their tax dollars are spent and more transparency in the way we run our democratic process.'” (Kings County Record)
The letter then continued by stating those MPs will soon have a chance to put their sentiments “into practice” by breaking party ranks and voting for the Liberals’ Transparency Act.
But before that vote happens, perhaps Simms should also learn more about some of the problems that bill is meant to fix?
• The Chronicle Herald reports a “little-noticed bill from the Senate” would allow federal government regulations to be altered without them being reported in a public record. (hat tip: Jeremy Nuttall)
• Twenty-one countries make their data more available than Canada does, according to a new survey by the Open Knowledge Foundation.
• Carleton University journalism professor Christopher Waddell details how “both Liberal and Conservative governments — usually supported by federal bureaucrats — have slowly but surely frustrated the workings of Canada’s Access to Information system.” (hat tip: IntegrityBC)
• BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association executive director Vincent Gogolek warns the Australia government is in process of abolishing their information commissioner, setting a “worry precedent” for Canada.
• The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association is hiring a new program director.
• Public interest researcher Ken Rubin, an expert on government secrecy, writes that freedom of information reforms being proposed by the Liberal Party won’t “drastically increase opening up government records and meetings.”
• The Ottawa Citizen writes that proposals to increase access to information application fees make for “interesting brainstorming, but that’s about it.”
• A transcript of information commissioner Suzanne Legault’s appearance before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics is now available.
• The Ontario government has passed legislation that “strengthens political accountability, makes the business of government more transparent, and gives Officers of the Legislature more responsibility in their roles.” Among the reforms: those who alter, conceal or destroy records with intent to deny an access request can now face a penalty of up to $5,000.
• The Toronto Star and the Ontario NDP are calling on the government there to make public how much individual doctors bill the province’s healthcare system — information that is already available in Manitoba and British Columbia.
• A Toronto Star investigation has found “Ontario’s most vulnerable children in the care of an unaccountable and non-transparent protection system. It keeps them in the shadows, far beyond what is needed to protect their identities.”
• CBC News reports the University of Prince Edward Island Student Union is continuing to push for the school to be subject to the province’s freedom of information legislation.
• “Many school boards are limiting media access to trustees in a way the public would never accept if they were city councillors or members of Parliament,” according to the Ottawa Citizen. As a result of that limited access and tepid interest in school board elections, the newspaper argues “the entire trustee system is looking increasingly like a farce, and trustees themselves are doing the system no favours by acting like mere cogs in a wheel.”
• North Vancouver’s school district has twice stopped a former school trustee candidate from trying to record its board meetings, reports the North Shore News. As a result, the newspaper has written an editorial stating the board is “finishing its term with an F in transparency.”
• The North Shore News writes Stephen Harper’s new era of accountability has been defined by “tight control of the message, where no one is actually accountable.”
• The Mississauga News reports the “Peel Regional Police are keeping secret their list of restaurants and bars in the Region that are notorious for producing drunk drivers, even though a Peel officer revealed one of the establishments in court earlier this year.”
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.
Author’s note: For most people, the holiday season is already here. But, for many of us in academia, it’s still marking season. Hence, the delay in posting this column.