BETTER LATE THAN NEVER? Last month, the Toronto Star reported the NDP would have more to say on freedom of information reform before Election Day.
Twenty-eight days later (and just ten days before Canadians go to the polls) the party has finally opened its mouth after having spent the past nine years criticizing the Conservative government’s secrecy.
As part of its election platform, the NDP has promised six bullet points worth of fixes to the Access to Information Act — the long-broken law that is supposed to allow the people and the press to obtain unreleased government records but too often doesn’t.
Those proposals, totalling 116 words, match or surpass many of those already advanced by the Liberals.
Both parties promise to eliminate all access to information fees except the $5 cost to file a request.
Both parties promise to give the information commissioner the power to order the release of government records.
And both parties promise to make the administration of Parliament, the prime minister’s office and minister’s offices subject to the Access to Information Act.
The NDP isn’t committing to review the Act every five years or require government data and information to be available in “formats that are modern and easy to use,” as promised in the Liberal platform.
Nor does it make the so far empty promise of making government information “open by default” — which, according to commissioner Suzanne Legault, is the way that law is already written.
But, unlike the Liberals, the NDP would require public officials to document their action and decisions.
It would make claims of cabinet confidentiality subject to review by the commissioner.
And it would give access to information users a means of forcing the government to release information that’s in the “public interest.”
That appears encouraging.
But the effectiveness of that mechanism will depend on how the NDP defines the “public interest.”
After all, the public interest override in British Columbia’s freedom of information law is so narrowly defined that it’s been almost useless.
Similarly, the NDP has promised to “start implementing the Commissioner’s recommendations to strengthen and modernize the Act.”
But does that mean all of those recommendations, including proposed reforms to the exclusions and exemptions in the Act — loopholes that our public officials use and abuse to hide even the most basic information about their decisions from Canadians?
I’ve emailed Mulcair’s press secretary George Smith asking for answers to those questions with a deadline of Wednesday.
I’ll let you know if I get an answer.
OPEN AND SHUT The NDP’s proposed Access to Information Act reforms are part of the party’s commitment to lead a “transparent government” that’s more open and accountable than the Harper administration. But some of the party’s dealings with journalists during the election campaign could give cause to doubt that claim.
On Saturday, the Globe and Mail published a 8,927-word profile of Tom Mulcair after “all efforts” to interview him over a two-month period failed. According to the newspaper:
E-mail and in-person requests made to various people, from the chief press officer and chief of staff to the press secretary and campaign manager, led nowhere. Eventually, our inquiries were sent down the chain of command, and landed with a junior press officer, who did not return calls. Ten weeks after our initial request, and shortly before going to press, The Globe and Mail was offered a telephone interview – an offer we declined due to the imminent publication date. That prompted a senior aide to say that a face-to-face interview could be arranged; this request was rejected for the same reason.
That wouldn’t be so troubling if Mulcair hadn’t also refused to take questions during his campaign launch, with the Toronto Star noting he was the only leader not to do so:
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, notorious for how rare he is available to media, took five questions from reporters outside Rideau Hall Sunday morning. Those questions had conditions, though: the questions were restricted to those media outlets that have agreed to go on tour with the Conservatives, at a cost of $12,500 a week. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who launched his campaign in Vancouver several hours after the other two, was prepared to answer more questions than the seven reporters there had for him.
This could just be incompetence on the part of Mulcair’s campaign staff. Goodness knows there’s enough reason to believe that. But it could also be a sign that a NDP government would only be open and accountable on its own terms.
TOTALLY TRANSPARENT National Newswatch’s Don Lenihan continued overstating the Liberal’s government transparency platform plank last week, writing that party leader Justin Trudeau “has a long list of Open Government reforms.” For the record, that list is comprised of five bullet points and totals 128 words.
BY THE NUMBERS Last week, I noted that reporters are estimated to have filed over ten times more freedom of information requests with British Columbia government ministries per 100,000 people living in that province than they did in Alberta. But how does the rest of the provinces outside Quebec stack up? Well, only four other provinces track the data needed to make that comparison. Nevertheless, the numbers we do have make for interesting reading:
Ontario (calendar 2012)
215 media requests
1.9 percent of all requests
1.6 requests per 100,000
Alberta (fiscal 2012/13)
110 media requests
4.6 percent of all requests
2.8 requests per 100,000
Nova Scotia (fiscal 2012/13)
73 media requests
4.7 percent of all requests
7.7 requests per 100,000
Manitoba (calendar 2012)
146 media requests
8.7 percent of all requests
11.7 requests per 100,000
Newfoundland and Labrador (fiscal 2012/13)
73 media requests
25.6 percent of all requests
13.9 requests per 100,000
British Columbia (fiscal 2012/13)
28.1 percent of all requests
29.9 requests per 100,000
RIGHTS BUT NO RESPONSIBILITIES? In Canada, journalists exercise our right to information, as well as our freedom of expression, in their own interest, as well as the public interest.
But to what extent do journalists have a responsibility to protect those rights and freedoms?
And, if journalists don’t feel such a responsibility or don’t feel able to act on that responsibility, why is that and how is that affecting the decline of journalism and the ascendancy of spin in this country?
Those are just some of the questions I’ve been asking myself after the news media provided little or no coverage of an effort to make freedom of information an election issue, as well as the 20th anniversary of Alberta’s broken records access law.
I’ll be ruminating more about this in the future. But, in the meantime, I invite you to share your own perspectives by emailing me at this address.
• The Hill Times reports the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development has called in the RCMP to conduct an investigation into the leak of an internal briefing document warning senior federal government insiders that Canada’s clout in the international community is diminishing.
• Meanwhile, according to CBC News, the Mounties are also looking into the leak of internal documents showing the Prime Minister’s Office directed officials to “stop processing a preliminary group of Syrian refugees, pending an audit of their cases.”
• The Tyee reports Conservative Leader Stephen Harper “met privately with select media outlets at the Red Truck Beer Company in East Vancouver this morning.” A source told the online magazine that “those invited were asked to submit three questions days ahead of time [and] then told which ones they could ask the Prime Minister.”
• The Telegraph reports Newfoundland and Labrador’s information commissioner has ordered the “release most of a controversial, secret report into sexual exploitation in the province.” According to the newspaper, the government has “argued that the report was based on interviews with sex workers and vulnerable individuals who could be put in danger if it was released publicly.”
• New Brunswick’s public safety minister has, according to the Telegraph-Journal, “shut down a right-to-information request seeking details around the death of man at the Saint John Regional Hospital last month, citing an ongoing coroner’s investigation.”
• The Telegraph-Journal reports New Brunswick’s Horizon Health Network is “refusing to release two reports about how to improve hospital security and patient safety after the death of Serena Perry,” a 22-year-old patient who was staying in Saint John Regional Hospital’s psychiatric unit on the nigh of Valentine’s Day 2012.
• The Globe and Mail reports, “Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne agreed to bar the media from three events with a high-ranking Chinese official at the request of the Communist Party.” (hat tip: IntegrityBC)
• The Times-Transcript opines that New Brunswick’s “access to information and protection of privacy regulations appear to have worked well in the case of a Moncton daycare inspection report, in that the public’s right to know has been upheld in a way that also protects an individual worker at the daycare in question.”
• SooToday.com reports the Ontario government “fought beak and claw” to prevent the release of information about wood turtles in the vicinity of the Bow Lake Wind Farm.
• Freelancer Bob Mackin tweets the British Columbia government “wants to charge $3K to show info about its propaganda website redesign.”
• The Vancouver Sun’s Daphne Bramham reports an online poll of 611 Metro Vancouver adults was asked to rank the University of British Columbia’s assets. According to the poll, “transparency was dead last, with 32 per cent saying it was ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ representative of UBC.” (hat tip: IntegrityBC)
• According to the New Westminster Record, British Columbia’s Douglas College has “declined to answer questions about the departure of its former president or why the institution continued to pay him $14,000 a month after he left suddenly last year.”
• A freedom of information request filed by the Collingwood Connection for the Town of Collingwood, Ont.’s Elvis festival contract has been denied.
• The Richmond News quotes the City of Richmond, B.C.’s planning policy manager Terry Crowe as saying the switch from the mandatory long-form census to the National Household Survey means, “You’re starting from scratch so it’s difficult to get a sense of the trends.”
• The Region of Peel, Ont. is debating creating a lobbyist registry, reports the Calendon Enterprise. But, according to the newspaper, the “hiccup is not knowing what a lobbyist is.”
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.