Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is looking toward giving Canadians more access to government information. (Photograph by MATT HEALY, Matt Healy Photography)

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is looking to give Canadians more access to government information. (Photograph by MATT HEALY, Matt Healy Photography)

THE SINS OF THE FATHER Pierre Trudeau’s government may well have balked at one of Justin Trudeau’s proposed fixes to our country’s broken freedom of information system.

Earlier this month, the younger Trudeau introduced a private member’s bill that would — among other measures — bolster the powers of the federal information commissioner.

Currently, the commissioner can review the government’s Access to Information Act decisions, such as whether it has improperly blacked out material in records requested using that law. But the commissioner has no power to order the government to disclose that material. Instead, such an order must come from the courts.

Trudeau’s private members bill would change that — although the government can ask the courts to review the commissioner’s orders.

But, when his father was in the prime minister’s office, the Liberals seemed to hold a different position.

In the years prior to the passage of the Access to Information Act, the party favoured legislation where cabinet ministers would have the final say on freedom of information decisions. No court appeal would have been possible — let alone a disclosure order from an information commissioner.

Indeed, even in the months prior to the Liberals introducing that Act, the Globe and Mail reported the Trudeau’s cabinet “had not yet decided whether judicial review will be applied in all cases where requests for Government documents are denied.”

But even the possibility of such a review hasn’t been enough to uphold Canadians’ information rights. So the younger Trudeau is now trying to patch up a legislative flaw created by his father’s secretive government.

“A SMALL CONSPIRACY” The Liberals are far from the first opposition party to promise more openness and accountability should they win power in the next election. It’s become a political trope of sorts. But journalists sometimes fail to mention just how often those promises remain unkept or are eventually broken when those parties form government.

In a 1978 column for the Globe and Mail, Geoffrey Stevens described that tendency as “a small conspiracy between the press and politicians.”

According to Stevens, “Opposition parties pretend that, if they were in power, they would do good things that the Government doesn’t want to do, because they are inconvenient or potentially troublesome, politically…For its part, the press pretends that, yes, the opposition parties would actually do these things, given the opportunity.”

But, he added, “We all know they probably wouldn’t, that (at the risk of being cynical) all parties act in much the same way in office.”

Stevens was specifically referring to then Opposition leader Joe Clark’s commitment to freedom of information.

Of course, Clark’s minority government did eventually introduce legislation in support of that principle. But it failed to pass Parliament before his Progressive Conservatives were defeated in the House of Commons.

Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government went on to bring into force a similar piece of legislation. But, since then, Canada’s governing politicians have too often worked against the public’s right to know — regardless of their pre-power promises.

GAG ORDERS ON A GLOBAL RISE? Earlier this year, Vancouver-based journalist Jeremy Hainsworth quoted media lawyer Dan Burnett as saying, “In the good old days, the media would fight anything that infringes freedom of the press.” But nowadays, sealing orders and closed courts are challenged “less and less” as a result of newsroom cutbacks — something that’s also appears to be happening in Down Under.

Here’s what Australian lawyer Peter Bartlett had to say in an interview with the Media Report‘s presenter Richard Aedy:

Bartlett: There’s been a significant increase, I think, in the number of suppression orders, especially in Victoria, over the last couple of years. And there seems to be a trend of an increase in New South Wales, despite the fact that there has been legislation introduced in New South Wales – and also Victoria — promoting open justice.

Aedy: So why is that the happening?

Bartlett: Potentially, it’s linked to the fact that the rivers of gold for traditional media have gone and the media companies are not appearing in court to oppose suppression orders to the degree they used to.

Aedy: Right. So even though there are specific laws in our two most populous states which should make it easier for media organizations to challenge suppression orders, they still have to be challenged and that has to be funded?

Bartlett: They still have to be challenged…

THE HIGH PRICE OF ADVERTISING In recent months, eyebrows have been raised about the new relationship being created between advertisers and some of our country’s major news publishers.

For example, the Vancouver’s Observer reported Postmedia Network Inc. was trying to convince Canada’s oil and gas lobby to sponsor energy “channels” on it’s newspaper Website.

Meanwhile, Canadaland obtained a memo that appears to confirm the Globe and Mail’s management “wants journalists to generate articles directly paid for and approved by advertisers.”

In a recent interview with Desmog Canada, I weighed in on that controversy, commenting that such initiatives may well erode “the social and political value of the content that media institutions are supposed to be producing.” You can read more here.

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: With summer upon us, my weekly look at news about the state of democracy, openness and accountability was interrupted for a well-deserved break. Weekend distribution of the column will now resume.

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