GOVERNMENT WATCHES THE WATCHMEN

The federal government wants to know who wants its records. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

The federal government wants to know who wants its records. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

FOIS WITHOUT A FACE Should the federal government know if a freedom of information request has been filed by a journalist or someone else? Some political reporters say no out of concern the government will delay or otherwise frustrate their requests. But I wonder if anonymity actually prevents such interference.

I got to thinking about that question after Global News online politics reporter Laura Stone noticed the government’s new access to information request form asks whether the filer is “best described” as “media,” “academia,” “business,” “organization,” “member of the public” or “decline to identify.”

In response, CBC News reporter Dean Beeby tweeted, “Best practice: always choose decline-to-ID, & never volunteer info to gov’t if not required by law.”

That’s a reasonable recommendation. But I’ve always assumed the government would be able to figure out my access requests were from the media, even if I didn’t disclose that I’m part of the fourth estate.

After all, journalists are among the few Canadians willing to spend the time and money needed to obtain records about, for example, the cost of renovating a government building or the reasons why a department was being reorganized.

Moreover, the government would likely red-flag such requests even if they didn’t know they were from the media, giving them special attention because the results could be politically embarrassing.

As such, I think reporters should identify themselves when filing access to information requests. But, having provided that information, we should demand the government routinely release statistics on the comparative timeliness, costliness and completeness of its response to those requests. And we should further demand those statistics be included in the annual reporting bulletin on the administration of the Access to Information Act.

That way, Canadians will know if the government is treating the media’s requests differently than everyone else’s — compromising the public’s right to know in the process.

WHAT’S IN A NAME? A New Brunswick district education council has provided yet another example of Canada’s secretive political culture, having refused to release information about the naming of two new grade schools in the Woodstock area.

The Bugle-Observer reports one of its freelance writers ask for the list of the names that had been considered for those schools.

But council denied that request because the province’s right to know legislation allows it to withhold information that “could reasonably be expected to reveal advice, opinions, proposals or recommendations developed by or for a public body or a minister of the Crown.”

BIGGER ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER Brampton will soon become the fourth Canadian city to create a lobbyist registry if its new mayor gets her way, becoming more transparent than many of the country’s major metropolises.

Former Ontario cabinet minister Linda Jeffrey won that office last week on a platform that included a package of “integrity, openness and transparency” reforms. Among those reforms was a promise to “establish a lobbyist registry…that is updated on a regular basis and available to the public online. All lobbying activities with elected officials would be registered.”

Toronto and Ottawa already have similar registries. Surrey also requires lobbyists to register, but only if they “intend to advocate on behalf of applicants for a rezoning, development permit, or an official community plan amendment.”

A TALE OF TWO STATEMENTS Canada’s information and privacy commissioners grabbed the media’s attention this week when they issued a joint statement warning against the introduction of new draconian powers for intelligence and law enforcement agencies. But when those commissioners issued a similar statement last year about the country’s outdated freedom of information and privacy laws, the media wasn’t nearly as attentive.

According to the Canadian Newsstand database, the more recent joint statement has been reported at least 11 times — with the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail and the Canadian Press all publishing articles about the announcement. By comparison, none of the news outlets included in that database printed coverage of the commissioners’ earlier demand to modernize the laws that protect our information and privacy rights in the days following that declaration.

In fairness, their more recent statement has a better news hook. The debate over new powers for intelligence and law enforcement agencies is taking place against two terror attacks. But this comparison brings into relief how difficult it can be to create a national conversation in the media about ongoing structural problems rather than the story of the day.

SQUIBS

• Prince Edward Island is “the only province that doesn’t include post-secondary institutions in its access to information law” — something the Prince Edward Island University Student Union wants to change, according to the Guardian. (hat tip: Janice Paskey)

• The Province reveals the results of a questionnaire about openness and accountability that it sent to Vancouver’s four civic parties.

• The Waterloo Chronicle reports its local government is trying to drum up interest in converting one of the city’s historic buildings into an open data centre called The Data Mine.

• Officials still won’t talk to the Ottawa Citizen about mould and asbestos problems at the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

• Some hospitals are using Ontario’s Quality of Care Information Protection Act to hide information about potential medical mistakes, reports the Toronto Star.

• Edmonton is refusing to release the “nitty, gritty details of how the city wants the new Valley LRT line to be designed, built and operated,” according to the Edmonton Journal.

• The Toronto Star reports a previously leaked legislative committee report on Ontario’s “scandal-plagued” air ambulance service has finally been officially released. (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.

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