ROOKIE’S PITCH FOR ACCESS GOES WILD

This letter from Liberal MP Scott Simms appeared again and again and again... (Graphic by Lloydminster Source)

This letter from Liberal MP Scott Simms has appeared again and again and again… (Graphic by Lloydminster Source)

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?

SQUIBS

• 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 reports “nearly every single piece of information in a recent Ontario Court of Appeal ruling is being kept secret…But it’s unclear why.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• 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.

TORY MPS PROPOSE HIGHER WATCHDOG TAX

MP Erin O'Toole led a Conservative charge to increase the application fee for access to information requests. (Photograph by Erin O'Toole)

MP Erin O’Toole led a Conservative charge to increase the application fee for access to information requests. (Photograph by Erin O’Toole)

TO FEE OR NOT TO FEE? Three Conservative MPs have proposed hiking the cost of using Canada’s already broken access to information system. But it’s uncertain if those proposals will be acted on by government or how they would affect those filing record requests in the public interest.

The MPs made those proposals last week during a meeting of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. At that meeting, information commissioner Suzanne Legault told members her office was in a financial crisis because of budget cuts and the need to investigate a growing number of access complaints.

While questioning Legault about that crisis, MP Erin O’Toole proposed that crisis could be adverted if the $5 fee for filing an information request was changed, even though that money goes into the government’s coffers rather than the commissioner’s.

Under that proposal, citizens would pay nothing if they were just asking for information about “their life.” But citizens asked for something else there would be a “nominal charge” that would be “a lot more” than the present amount. And “commercial entities” could pay $200.

By comparison, MPs Ed Komarnicki and Joan Crockatt’s proposals for fee increases were less detailed.

Crockatt told the commissioner, who is opposed to such an increase,  that “a lot of people, particularly in business” pay a “great deal” for information. She also said those same people were “anxious to receive the information that you have,” seemingly forgetting that it’s government rather than Legault’s office which holds those records.

For his part, Komarnicki proposed increasing fees for everyone “to bring it more in line with inflation.”

Following those recommendations, NDP MP Murray Rankin asked Treasury Board President Tony Clement whether he agreed with his more junior colleagues that “jacking up fees” was a good way to fix the access to information system.

Clement — whose government last considered such an increase in 2011 — didn’t answer that question. Instead, he stated, “If the information commissioner has a problem with her budget she knows where to go.”

O’Toole was somewhat more forthcoming in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, telling the paper he pulled the $200 fee for commercial entities “out of thin air” and that the media could be excluded from that category.

Meanwhile, Crockatt told National Post Calgary correspondent Jen Gerson that she “never suggested” such a fee for journalists. Indeed, she considers the “mass media to be an extension of the public.” Crockatt is the former executive editor of the Calgary Herald.

TRIBAL POLITICS To some members of the media (including myself), Crockatt’s proposal to hike access to information application fees seemed at odds with her background as a journalist. Among them was Toronto-based reporter Saleem Khan:

Crockatt, who acknowledged during the committee meeting that the newspaper industry relies “a lot on access to information to get our information,” didn’t respond to Khan’s tweet.

But it’s notable that Crockatt might not have had much opportunity to use Alberta’s equivalent of that law. By the time it came into force in October 1995, Crockatt had already moved on from her job as the Edmonton Journal’s legislature bureau chief to become the Calgary Herald’s editorial page editor.

Alberta was the second to last jurisdiction in North America to pass a freedom of information law.

THANKS FOR NOTHING The Liberals have done a lot of chest beating about their Transparency Act, which they claim would “raise the bar on openness and transparency in government.” But information commissioner Legault has essentially said a major selling point for the bill is meaningless.

Liberal MP Ted Hsu asked the commissioner if she agreed the purpose section of the Access to Information Act should be changed so all government data and information must be made open by default in a machine readable format, with exceptions to the release of records being rare. Coincidentally, just such a change is proposed in the Transparency Act.

But Hsu was likely disappoint with the Legault’s response: “In my opinion, that’s the way the Act is constructed as it is…The purpose clause has been interpreted quite well by the courts in the last 30 years. I am somewhat leery of amending a purpose clause for that Act.”

Indeed, according to the commissioner, the current access to information system is “supposed to be based on open government by default. I looked at the Hansard for 1982-93 when our current legislation was put forward and it was put forward on the basis of open government. Open government is a 30-year concept.”

PRICE DROP Legault told MPs at the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics that the cost of filing a federal access to information request was “low compared to other jurisdictions — certainly compared to Ontario.” That statement likely gave comfort to Conservative MPs, who were pushing for an increase to that fee. But, in actuality, the federal government charges more for those requests than many of the provinces. Here’s the breakdown:

British Columbia – $0
Saskatchewan – $0
Manitoba – $0
Quebec – $0
New Brunswick – $0
Yukon – $0
Ontario – $5
Newfoundland and Labrador – $5
Nova Scotia – $5
Prince Edward Island – $5
Alberta – $25
Northwest Territories – $25
Nunavut – $25

SQUIBS

• The Vancouver Sun has published a tick-tock on how the Canadian Border Services Agency dodged questions about an in-custody suicide.

• CBC News reports the government went to Federal Court to try to prevent public sector integrity commissioner Mario Dion from tabling a report about wrongdoing within the Ottawa air section of the RCMP. (hat tip: Chris George)

• Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Paul Davis has suggested the province’s freedom of information law should be changed so that emails sent to legislators can only be released if the writer gives their permission, according to the Telegram.

• Ontario’s auditor general has asked legislators to restrict the investigative authority of that province’s ombudsman, reports the Toronto Star. (hat tip: Mark Bourrie)

• Manitoba’s ombudsman has said there’s “no plausible explanation” why freedom of information requests didn’t reveal an email showing one of the province’s cabinet ministers was behind a plan to use civil servants for apparently partisan purposes. (hat tip: Dean Beeby)

• The City of Vancouver has relaxed its media relations policy, according to the Vancouver Sun. Its communications department has issued a a list of nearly 30 senior staff who will now take direct calls and emails from journalists.

According to the Windsor Star, the Ontario Public School Board Association’s guidelines state that “once a motion has been voted upon by the board, trustees are required to support the decision — and the board chair becomes the only member who can offer public comment.” But the newspaper reports newly-elected local public school board trustee Alan Halberstadt won’t necessarily be following those guidelines.

• Last week, the Brandon Sun reported a longtime paediatrician in the community had been publicly censured by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba “following the death of one infant and an unnecessary liver transplant in another.” But fellow doctor W.E. Meyers objected to the paper’s front page coverage of that story and its use of an anonymous sources, writing that Eves was now “being re-censured in a more public forum” and that his reputation had been “savaged” by the Sun.

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

SUNSHINE LIST WON’T ILLUMINATE EVERYONE

The sunlight of disclosure won't shine on everyone who works for the City of Saint John's. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

The sunlight of disclosure won’t shine on everyone who works for the City of Saint John’s. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

SUNSHINE IN THE CITY? A decision to disclose the salaries of Saint John’s city employees has brought into relief some of cultural and legal limits to freedom of information in Canada.

Coun. Greg Norton had initially wanted to release the name, title, salary and other benefits — including overtime and severance payout — of each of those employees.

In response, city solicitor John Nugent advised the provincial Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act would only allow the municipality to publish an employee’s salary range.

But that wasn’t the only concern with Norton’s proposal.

The Telegraph-Journal reported Couns. Susan Fullerton and Donna Reardon were worried about the cost of such a sunshine list — an issue that was also raised by the federal government to oppose Liberal efforts to reform the Access to Information Act.

Reardon, according to the newspaper, also questioned whether there was a need for such information, since the city already discloses the total amount it spends on those salaries.

Moreover, the Telegraph-Journal quoted Fullerton as saying, “The citizens’ right to know battles with the citizens’ desire to know and we’ve got to figure what is a need to know and what is plain voyeurism.”

Such sentiments were even shared by Kurt Peacock, one of the newspaper’s columnist.

Peakock expressed support for the sunshine list but wrote “an inventory naming every single junior employee on the payroll just seems like too much information.”

He explained, “Nosey neighbours may find a complete employee list of salaries to be an exciting read, but I don’t think the taxpaying public needs to know just which administrative assistant makes $32,000 a year and which one makes $55,000.”

But what Fullerton and Peakcock don’t appear to fully appreciate is that information needs are often circumstantial, making it perilous to circumscribe the public’s right to know.

After all, a $23,000 difference in pay between administrative assistants could be an indication of favouritism or discrimination — an issue for public concern rather than just neighbourly nosiness.

Nevertheless, even if Saint John’s city councillors wanted to show that difference they couldn’t for legal reasons. And, in the end, Norton’s sunshine list was darkened, with the  council unanimously agreeing to release a salary report similar to the one published by the Newfoundland and Labrador government, which list salaries for employees making more than $60,000.

That provincial government report also lists those who received retirement allowances and severance payments worth more than $10,000. But, again, ranges for those payments are given rather than specific amounts.

OPENNESS IN DEFEAT Failed Non-Partisan Association mayor candidate Kirk LaPointe may have lost his bid to bring greater openness to Vancouver’s city hall. But Self-Counsel Press, the publishing company LaPointe leads, will be making governments across Canada more open to everyone.

In a tweet, Canadian Press’s Jim Bronskill announced Your Right to Know: How to Use the Law to Get Government Secrets — a book released by Self-Counsel — is “coming soon to bookstores.” Bronskill co-wrote the book with CBC News’s David McKie.

DEMAND CONTROL Earlier, I wrote about how a proposed Liberal fix to Canada’s broken access to information system would preserve most of the hiding spaces government uses to keep records from the public. But that’s not the only problem with party leader Justin Trudeau’s Transparency Act.

The Grits have touted the fact the bill would eliminate all access to information fees, except the $5 charge for filing a freedom of information request. That’s an unusual exception because only seven of the 13 provinces and territories currently have such an application charge. Moreover, according to the Centre for Law and Democracy, those fees “runs counter to international standards.”

So why keep it? Well, the centre has stated that “some in government view these fees as a way of deterring information requests,” with the Harper administration having proposed an abortive hike “in order to control demand.” But whether Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is of a similar mind remains to be seen.

SQUIBS

• “Incoming Hamilton public school trustees are being asked to tape most of their closed-door meetings to ensure there’s no dispute about what was said and show they’ve got nothing to hide,” according to the Hamilton Mountain News.

• British Columbia’s information commissioner has backed the City of Abbotsford’s refusal to release the legal costs associated with removing a homeless camp. The province’s attorney general Suzanne Anton had earlier said she doesn’t think the public should have a right to know what lawyers working for the government are making.

• Squamish Mayor Patricia Heintzman has told the Vancouver Sun she’ll be “more proactive” about involving the community in government after her predecessor’s council was criticized for being too secretive.

• CBC News reports that legal experts say Alberta’s Law Enforcement Review Board is “ignoring both its mandate and a court ruling by refusing to release records which detail questionable actions taken by the province’s deputy attorney general.”

• The Chronicle Herald reports the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada has stated some police records about the 1990 death of a teenager following a police raid were destroyed. But when a request was filed for information about that statement, 414 of the 446 pages provided were completely blank.

• In a column on the Harper administration’s decision to ignore calls to reform the Access to Information Act, University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist writes that if the Conservatives’ consultation on that issue has been “little more than theatre, claims of open government or open dialogue mean very little.”

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

TORIES FIGHT TO KEEP GOVERNMENT CURTAINS CLOSED

Tories want to keep the curtain drawn on government, giving a thumbs down to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau's Transparency Act (Graphic by Liberal Party of Canada)

Conservative critics give a thumbs down to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s Transparency Act. (Graphic by Liberal Party of Canada)

TORIES TRAMPLE TRANSPARENCY BILL The Conservative government has claimed it only charges “minor additional fees” to access its records and that the country’s information commissioner doesn’t need additional powers  — despite evidence suggesting otherwise.

Tory MP Dan Albas made those comments on behalf of the government in response to a Liberal bill that would partially fix Canada’s broken freedom of information system.

The bill, entitled the Transparency Act, would eliminate all access to information fees, except the $5 charge for filing a request.

Freedom of information advocates have criticized some of the government’s fee estimates, which can total hundreds, thousands or even over a million dollars.

The bill would also give the information commissioner the power to order the release of records the government has withheld.

The current commissioner, Suzanne Legault, has repeatedly asked for that power, which some provincial access watchdogs already possess, along with a mandate to educate the public about freedom of information issues.

But Albas quoted former commissioner John Reid as saying, “There is no evidence that order powers would strengthen the right of access, speed up the process, or reduce the amount of secrecy.”

The parliamentary secretary also said eliminating access to information fees would “not show respect for the tax dollars of Canadians,” adding that 99.5 percent of requests are “fulfilled at no direct cost” beyond the initial $5 application charge.

Nor, according to Albas, were the Conservatives supportive of the Liberal bill’s proposal that the government provide a “detailed explanation” when it refuses to release a record.

The reason: such a requirement “would add an unnecessary burden on the entire access to information program across the government.”

SUNNY WAYS? In an online advertisement released this week, the Liberals claimed their Transparency Act “will raise the bar on openness in government” — even though that legislation would preserve most of the hiding spaces used to keep information from the public. But I also wonder whether party leader Justin Trudeau will be able to hit that low bar if he becomes prime minister.

The reason: in his editorial this week, CTV’s Don Martin said a “freakish tilt toward ruthless control is developing” behind Trudeau’s “sunshine disposition.”

Among the examples Martin cited was “the fixing of Liberal nomination battles to protect Trudeau’s star recruits” — despite an earlier commitment to have open nominations.

The Grit leader has also said MPs “should be community leaders, free to express their constituents’ views and free to work with members of other parties to develop solutions to Canada’s challenges.”

But, according to Trudeau, non-incumbent Liberal candidates who become MPs will be “expected to vote pro-choice on any bills.”

Moreover, those candidates are being screened for their opinions on social issues to ensure they are “consistent with the Liberal Party as it is now, as it stands under my leadership and under the feedback we’re getting rom Canadians across the country.”

While neither of these inconsistencies has to do with open government, in my experience politicians who want this kind of control are also strangers rather than friends to freedom of information.

Which means Trudeau’s promises to bring more sunshine into government may be as fleeting as those made by Conservative leader Stephen Harper before he became prime minister.

CANADIANS COMMENT ON ACCESS ISSUES The Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University has released the country’s “first ever” poll on political leadership ethics. But the poll also has a lot to say about Canadians think about government openness and accountability. According to the study:

• 48 percent think politicians frequently misuse government powers to silence critics;

• 47 percent think politicians frequently lie to Parliament, the media or the public;

• 45 percent think politicians frequently limit the media’s access to elected officials;

• 81 percent support laws to increase transparency in government as a way of reducing ethics breaches in Canadian politics;

• 68 percent supporter better protection for whistleblowers as a way of reducing ethics breaches in Canadian politics;

• 33 percent trust journalists, with public servants, police officers, judges and doctors being considered more trustworthy; and

• respondents think whistleblowers, the police, voters, party leaders, ethics commissioners and auditors general all have more responsibility for policing political ethics than the media.

The study was conducted online by the Gandalf Group using a nationally representative sample of 1,039 Canadians. The margin of error is 3.1 percent.

TRACK AND MAP RIGHT TO KNOW THREATS A coalition of civil liberty groups have built what could be a powerful weapon in the fight for more freedom of information in Canada.

Last week, those groups launched an online tool that allows Canadians to file reports of censorship across Canada, including “limits on the right to information.”

Once approved, those reports then appear on Censorship Tracker’s map, showing how censorship “plays out across all provinces and territories, and how it changes over time.”

But the success of that project, which is being led by PEN Canada, will partially hinge on whether Canadians actually participate in it — as I did last week when I submitted a report on a now overturned decision to bar journalist Linden MacIntyre from appearing on the CBC News Network.

However, Censorship Tracker partners, which include the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, will also be updating the site.

SQUIBS

• Former senior oil executive Alan Detheridge hopes Canadian lawmakers will resist “pressure from the oil industry” to weaken a proposed new law that require “oil, gas, and mining companies in Canada to disclose their payments to governments around the world.” (hat tip: IntegrityBC)

• The Canadian Press reports NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus has sent a letter to Treasury Board President Tony Clement, accusing the government of “starving the Access to Information system of cash, hiding documents for political reasons, and backpedalling on promises to reform the 32-year-old access law.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• Suzanne Legault, Canada’s information commissioner, has released a report showing Transport Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development had the lowest completion rates for access to information requests in fiscal 2012/13. (hat tip: Bob Mackin)

• iPolitics columnist Devon Black thinks there should be a cap on access to information fees, penalties for “unreasonable delays” in releasing government records and adequate funding for the country’s right to know watchdog. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• “Some provinces are taking steps to let the public know when agencies have failed to act on recommendations stemming from coroner’s inquests and fatality inquiries,” according to Postmedia News.

• Global News online politics reporter Laura Stone writes that justice department records released via an access to information request blacked out the name of the executive director of a victims services’ organization — even though that name can easily be found on the Internet.

• According to the Toronto Star, “It’s nothing short of outrageous” that Toronto’s Pan Am Games is demanding more than $4,000 for “internal communications and emails concerning the status of 10 new sports facilities under construction, and on any delays, over an 18-month period.”

• Alberta’s Wildrose Party is promising to “provide easier and more affordable access to Freedom of Information requests” and “dramatically improve whistleblower legislation” as part of a policy packaged focused on “strengthening democracy and ending entitlement.”

• The Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s prairie director Colin Craig reports the Saskatchewan government responded with 72 pages of information, 66 of which had been blacked, when it was asked for information about the financial impact Canada’s aging population would have on the healthcare system.

• The Vancouver Sun’s Chad Skelton lists 53 provincial government bodies that were “transparent and quick” in response to his request for public sector salary records.

• Even though Mayor Gregor Robertson and his secretive administration was re-elected, journalist Stanley Tromp argues Vancouver voters have “spoken out for open government.”

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

SMALLER MEDIA TREATED LIKE SECOND-CLASS REPORTERS?

The department of citizenship and immigration's draft guide for its spokespeople is interesting reading for frustrated journalists.

The department of citizenship and immigration’s draft guide for its spokespeople is interesting reading for frustrated journalists.

“All media requests are not equal.”

Journalists from small, alternative and independent media outlets have long believed that’s why they get no response or a delayed response when they contact the government for information. That can make it more difficult for them to break stories, frustrating the public’s right to know.

But it’s also an adage you’d never, ever expect to see the government write down – until spin doctors at Citizenship and Immigration Canada did exactly that in a document I obtained via a recent access to information request.

Was it a pique of honesty that led them to put those words in black and white, an error or just plain indiscretion?

Well, according to a department representative, the document – a 16-page draft guide prepared for citizenship and immigration’s spokespeople – was never approved and doesn’t reflect how media requests are actually handled.

But, even with that caveat in mind, the guide may give us a glimpse inside the mind of a government spin doctor.

It states, “Inquiries received from major media outlets must receive greater attention and effort…than calls received from minor media sources or student journalists.”

Similarly, “calls from major international media outlets (i.e. Wall Street Journal, CNN, The New York Times) as well as calls on sensitive issues,” demand even more attention.

In other words, according to the guide, the department should give more help to foreign reporters – and their audiences – than some Canadian reporters.

But, in an email, citizenship and immigration media relations advisor Nancy Caron used capital letters to stress the “DRAFT” nature of that document.

The first page of the document stresses the same thing, adding “procedures are constantly evolving to meet changing circumstance.”

It then goes on to state that the guide is simply meant to provide “a snapshot of where we are today. It reflects how the DG of communications, the Director of Ministerial Events and Media Relations and the Minister’s Office wish us to process media calls.”

Nevertheless, according to Caron, the document was “never presented to, nor approved by CIC’s management.”

Indeed, she stated her department “provides all media outlets with the same service level and attention. Media requests are triaged and addressed based on deadlines for publication…In fact, in the first quarter of the current fiscal year, 90.7% of journalists’ deadlines were met, regardless of their outlet.”

But journalists I spoke with say the “all media requests are not equal” approach matches their own dealings with the federal government.

Jeremy Nuttall, national reporter for the online magazine The Tyee, has said that, “Forget about the back burner, it feels like you’re not even on the stove.”

An example: back in 2012, when Nuttall was freelancing for The Tyee and covering the government’s controversial decision to approve the use of temporary foreign workers by HD Mining International Ltd. in British Columbia.

He said the citizenship and immigration “answered at first…then darkness” when the story “heated up.”

“I’ve worked for larger places and there is more of an effort [by government] to get your replies,” said Nuttall, who has also reported for the Canadian Press, CBC News and the Globe and Mail.

Parliament Hill freelancer Justin Ling said he’s had similar experiences. “I’ve been doing a lot of stories for Vice News recently and I can tell you the departments don’t care about Vice News,” he said. “It’s not their demographic, they just don’t give a shit.”

“The departments definitely have targeted approaches based on who you are calling from and who you are,” continued Ling, who has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post and Maclean’s.

“The consequence is that it reinforces the consortium of news outlets that people go to for news. It’s unfortunate.”

It is – especially at a time when those outlets are on the decline, with journalists outside the “consortium” trying to investigate stories the mainstream no longer can.

By treating those journalists as second-class reporters – either in policy or in practice – the government is once again frustrating the public’s right to know.

Because if members of the fourth estate can’t get the information they need from the government, neither can Canadians – keeping voters in the dark and their elected officials unaccountable.

 

SECRECY SCORES ELECTION WIN

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson wants you to ask him anything. But getting answers has proved difficult. (Photograph by Gregor Robertson)

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson wants you to ask him anything. But getting answers from his government has proven difficult. (Photograph by Gregor Robertson)

CLOSED DOORS DON’T RUIN RE-ELECTION CHANCES The result of Vancouver’s recent civic election may comfort federal Conservatives worried about their government’s reputation for secrecy.

Like the Tories, Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver party came to power after running on a platform that promised a more “open and accountable municipal government.”

Robertson also repeated that promise during his 2008 swearing-in speech, saying, “I will not let you down on making city hall more open and accountable.”

But, like the Tories, Robertson has let voters down.

For example, in its most recent freedom of information audit, Newspapers Canada gave Vancouver a “C for the extent of information it disclosed and an F for speed of responses.”

Journalists have also repeatedly and publicly complained about the city’s increasingly restrictive media relations policy.

Yet, even though Robertson’s competitors promised more transparency, voters returned the mayor and his party to power on Saturday — a feat the Tories may well repeat in 2015.

IS SECRECY REALLY A SURPRISE? Last week, in an editorial criticizing the Harper administration’s continued lack of transparency, the Globe and Mail told readers it’s surprising when a party “goes from promising more access to actively reducing it” once they form government.

But there are numerous examples suggesting the real surprise would be if that didn’t happen, with Robertson’s record as Vancouver’s mayor being just one of them.

Another: in 1993, Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien’s platform promised that “open government will be the watchword of the Liberal program.” Yet, when he came to power, the Liberals, like the Conservatives, did nothing to cure the country’s then ailing access to information system.

Instead, a 1999 report by right to know scholar Alasdair Roberts, found “it takes longer to process an FOI request today that at any point since adoption of the law in 1982.”

A year later, in his annual report to Parliament, information commissioner John Reid also accused the Chretien administration of having launched a “full counter-attack” against his legal and investigative resources.

Indeed, at the time, freedom of information researcher Ken Rubin wrote, “Chrétien wants no one…telling him to expose records the Prime Minister considers to be cabinet confidences, including his own daily movements” — a reference to  schedules his office was refusing to release.

I could go on, of course. But, instead, I’ll give this advice: rather than pillorying a single governing party or politicians for being excessively secretive, perhaps journalists, activists and Canadians should be more concerned about the political systems that allows for that secrecy in the first place.

SQUIBS

• The Canadian Press reports the “federal information watchdog is almost broke, weathering a cash crunch Suzanne Legault says threatens her ability to protect the rights of Canadians.” (hat tip: Mike De Souza)

• The Toronto Star skewers the federal government’s “Orwellian” open government action plan for being “so totally disconnected from reality that the initial reaction in the nation’s capital was incredulity.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Globe and Mail reports that environment lawyers say “the B.C. government appears to have systemically breached its freedom-of-information law by withholding information related to the collapse of the tailings dam at the Mount Polley mine.”

• According to the Vancouver Sun, British Columbia’s information and privacy commissioner “has agreed to investigate a second complaint that the B.C. government is illegally holding back documents related to the Mount Polley mine tailings dam collapse.” (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)

• The Ryerson Review of Journalism reports on how government secrecy is thwarting journalists investigating that collapse.

• The Georgia Straight reports it took nine months to obtain government records about the death of Mexican immigrant Lucia Vega Jiménez, who committed suicide while in the Canadian Border Services Agency’s custody.

• The Vancouver Sun reports those records show the agency decided “it would not tell the public of the incident…responding only if journalists asked questions.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Globe and Mail’s Andrea Woo highlights an email from the package in which the agency’s communications department “ponders how to answer questions about not answering questions” about its operations.

• The organizing committee for the 2015 Pan Am Games “wants more than $4,000 for access to information on the construction progress and delays on new, tax-funded sports facilities,” according to the Toronto Star. (hat tip: Kat Eschner)

• Bighorn Municipal District councillor Paul Ryan says it’s “very disturbing” that he can’t access government reports on the impact of industrial operations in his community. The Rocky Mountain Outlook quotes his as saying, “We can’t get anything back from the province, yet we have people in Hazmat suits running around” Exhshaw, a hamlet that’s part of the district.

• In a letter to the editor published in the Sherbrooke Record, Waterville, Que. resident Debra Martin writes that, in order to view a bylaw in her town, “one must make a written request in compliance with the access to information act, wait for a reply and then go to Town Hall from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. during the week — except for Wednesday mornings or Friday afternoons and the noon hour when they are closed.”

• Renu Mandhane, the director of the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, writes that “search fees in the thousands of dollars puts access to information outside the grasp of ordinary Canadians.” (hat tip: Laura Tribe)

• CBC News’s Dean Beeby writes that Canada’s Privy Council Office isn’t releasing a note to Prime Minister Stephen Harper about the travel costs for veterans attending the ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The government earlier announced it would pay up to $2,000 to help those veterans attending the ceremony in France — an amount that was later criticized.

• New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant doesn’t know why the Lobbyist Registration Act his government passed six months ago hasn’t been enacted, according to the Telegraph-Journal. But he’s told reporters, “I have asked the executive council office to give me an update on exactly where it is and where it has been stalled.”

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

SECRETS REMAIN UNDER “OPEN GOVERNMENT” PLAN

An example of a typical government filing cabinet under the Tory's second open government plan. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

An example of a typical government filing cabinet under the Tories’ second open government action plan. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

A LITTLE REFORM DOESN’T GO A LONG WAY The Harper administration’s second open government action plan was rightly pilloried last week for not including any plans to fix the country’s long broken Access to Information Act. But it’s important to remember that, even though the Liberals and the NDP both introduced private members bills to amend that act, the Grit’s proposal has significant limitations.

For example, that proposal states “exceptions to the right of access should be rare.” But it does very little to change the exemptions and exclusions in the Act that let government frustrate access requests and keep their most sensitive records out of the public eye.

On that score, the NDP’s bill, which was defeated on second reading, was considerably more reformist. It would have allowed for greater access to records about advice and recommendations developed by or for the government, as well as its positions and plans. Accounts of consultations and deliberations involving the government would have also become more accessible and so would some cabinet records.

So while the Conservatives deserve a drubbing for continuing to run a backroom state, the Liberals don’t look like they would throw open the curtains of government if they won power.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE SOME NUMBERS COULD MAKE Thanks to party discipline, caucus secrecy and cabinet confidentiality, it’s often difficult to tell the difference between our legislators — and hold them to account. After all, those representatives are usually only allowed to speak out on behalf of their constituents and their own conscience during closed door meetings. Outside those meetings, they’re expected to toe the party line.

But what would happen if our legislators were required to publish an annual report that included statistics measuring their performance on everything from their voting behaviour to how much government money they were bringing into their constituency?

The United Kingdom’s Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority suggested something similar last year. And now British Conservative MP Jesse Norman has given his constituents an example of what such a report might look like, showing everything from how many public constituency events he’s attended to how many questions he’s asked in the House of Commons.

Just think how much more helpful that information would be if it was independently audited and British voters were able to compare his statistics to those of other MPs. Moreover, there’s nothing that would stop Canadian legislators from doing the same thing — except a desire to maintain the anonymity that both protects and disempowers them.

PUBLIC SERVANTS OR PARTY EMPLOYEES? Former government scientist Michael Rennie has admirably spoken out against the policies that prevent his ex-colleagues from talking about their research. But, in doing so, he appeared to speak in favour of a common assumption that I believe may have contributed to the creation of those policies.

In an op-ed published in the Ottawa Citizen, Rennie wrote that when he was working for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, he would refer media requests for comment to the department’s communications officers. But “these requests were typically met with silence.”

That’s one of the reasons why he wants to see changes to the “current communications policies and practices are doing little to facilitate open scientific dialogue in the federal public service.”

Nevertheless, Rennie stated, “It’s reasonable to expect that a public servant would not be publicly critical of their employer, or the policies they represent.”

Yet what happens when a government scientist’s research implicitly criticizes their employer or such policies? Should lips be sealed about that work or should it be shared?

And why do some Canadians seem to assume those public servants are working for whatever party is in power rather than the people?

After all, if we took the later perspective, then there arguably wouldn’t be anything wrong with them being critical of public policies that weren’t in the public interest.

In fact, it would be irresponsible of them not to.

STAR PUMPS COMMISSIONER’S PRIVACY ROLE Earlier, I reported on how journalists routinely describe Canada’s information and privacy commissioners as “privacy watchdogs” or “privacy commissioners” even when those officials are dealing with right to know issues.

The latest example comes to us from the Toronto Star, which reported last week that “Investigators from the provincial privacy commissioner’s office have interviewed staff at the Toronto school board after allegations surfaced that trustees interfered and tampered with a document requested by the Star under the freedom of information act.”

Yet that investigation has nothing to do with commissioner’s privacy protection role and everything to do with his responsibility to uphold the public’s information access rights.

SQUIBS

• In a column for the Huffington Post, Dawson College history professor Frederic Bastien contrasts the federal Conservative’s championing of Canada’s past with their refusal to make archival information available to historians. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Vancouver Sun files freedom of information requests with 21 local municipalities and finds a “lack of transparency at city halls in the region.” (hat tip: Mike Hager)

• The Georgia Straight’s Travis Lupick uses his own dealings with the Canadian Border Services Agency as an example of how federal agencies “routinely hide information from the public.”

• The Tyee is ignoring a government demand to stop publishing “personal information” contained in internal health ministry emails that were leaked to the online magazine. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.