DEATH BY STUDY

Progressive Conservative MP Gerald Baldwin was also frustrated by the federal government’s tendency to study rather than act on freedom of information. (Photograph courtesy of Gerald Baldwin)

Despite their campaign promise to make government open by default, the federal Liberals have yet to introduce major reforms to the Access to Information Act that would reduce the amount of information officials are allowed to withhold from the public. Instead, the government has announced it will be conducting yet another review of that legislation,1“Commitment 7: Access to Information,” Open Government Team, updated August 14, 2018, https://docs.google.com/document/d/18K2llOOI1GgyBxcRYAsVnlnVN6Y4cIsXuiZml65EcNc/edit. even though it has already been extensively reviewed.

But such delays have been a longstanding frustration for right to know advocates in Canada, dating back to before the Access to Information Act was passed in 1982. For example, when the government released its green paper on freedom of information in 1978, Progressive Conservative MP Gerald Baldwin – who has been described as the “father and grandfather”2“Gerald W. Baldwin, O.C., Q.C., LL.D.,” Governor General of Canada, updated March 26, 2018, http://archive.gg.ca/honours/search-recherche/honours-desc.asp?lang=e&TypeID=orc&id=70. of that law – wrote:

“The issue has been examined and studied to death. There was the 1969 Task Force on Government Information which made a wide examination and a very good report, part of which was ignored by the government. There was a report by Mr. Donald Wall. There was the study preceding the 1973 guidelines for the House of Commons by the government dealing with production of papers. Then, the government has had a small task force which produced the green paper and which has been involved in careful study for many months of the whole issue, not only in Canada, but in other countries. Then, there are the studies, the briefs and the evidence produced for the standing joint committee and which persuaded them to bring in the report mentioned above and finally, there have been made briefs and recommendations and resolutions of organizations sent to the government. The government knows what it needs to know about this subject. The House and the media know about it and, up until the presentation of the green paper, the only issue was whether or not the government was prepared to act. It now appears quite definitely they will not.”3Gerald Baldwin, Response to the Green Paper on Freedom of Information (Ottawa, ON: printed by the author, 1978?), 7-8.

It would take two more years, and a defeat at the polls, before the Liberals took such action. So the question is whether today’s Liberals will follow the same pattern.

References   [ + ]

1. “Commitment 7: Access to Information,” Open Government Team, updated August 14, 2018, https://docs.google.com/document/d/18K2llOOI1GgyBxcRYAsVnlnVN6Y4cIsXuiZml65EcNc/edit.
2. “Gerald W. Baldwin, O.C., Q.C., LL.D.,” Governor General of Canada, updated March 26, 2018, http://archive.gg.ca/honours/search-recherche/honours-desc.asp?lang=e&TypeID=orc&id=70.
3. Gerald Baldwin, Response to the Green Paper on Freedom of Information (Ottawa, ON: printed by the author, 1978?), 7-8.

One thought on “DEATH BY STUDY

  1. Dean Beeby

    Thanks, Sean, once again for unearthing another key text. Baldwin’s comments, made even before Canada had an Access to Information Act, were prescient as usual. Governments much prefer to “study” the issue because it gives the illusion of action while preserving secrecy. In 2001-2002, the Chretien government constituted an Access to Information Review Task Force, under Andree Delagrave, to study the ATIA and suggest improvements – the most extensive review of the federal legislation ever conducted. After spending more than $3 million, Delagrave delivered her final report in June 2002. It has been gathering dust on the shelves beside many other ATIA reviews – then and since – that also led nowhere. I feel somewhat culpable. I was a member of the external advisory committee for Delagrave’s task force, the only regular user of the ATIA to provide input. I complained at the time that nothing would be accomplished if bureaucrats remained in charge of the process, and that held true. Bureaucrats were also in charge of the process that resulted in today’s Bill C-58, which will restrict rather than widen access to government records. Plus ca change.

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