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.

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