HOLIDAY HIATUS

I’ll be taking the next few weeks off to celebrate the holiday season and prepare course outlines for the coming semester. That means the Unknowable Country’s weekly look at openness and accountability in Canada will be on hiatus until the New Year. But check back then for more insights and information about your right to know. In the meantime, my best wishes to you and yours.

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 1982-83 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.