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.

4 thoughts on “TORY MPS PROPOSE HIGHER WATCHDOG TAX

  1. Josef

    I think the Federal Conservatives have forgotten they are the party of Tasha Kheiriddin who once started a speech famously with, “We’re all here to promote liberty, and…”

    If the Federal Conservatives want to get back to swashbuckling days when folks wanted action figures of their pundits, John Baird and PMSH… then they should disclose a lot more information online, not charge a FOI fee and re-read “Rescuing Canada’s Right”.

    Reply
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