Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the federal Access to Information Act
On the 30th anniversary of Access to Information, David McKie sees reason for positivity: If we’re capable of doing stories with a weak law that gives the government too many ways to withhold information, and the information commissioner too few powers to force institutions to hand over records, then think of the stories we could do with an even stronger law.
By David McKie
With all the negative publicity access laws have been receiving lately, it might sound strange to suggest that journalists spend the next 12 months ramping up their use of the act.
The Newfoundland and Labrador government made news by passing what many are afraid is a draconian law that critics argue will empower lead to the withholding of more information. Thanks to an amendment to Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, requests for ministerial briefings that ministers deem “frivolous, systemic or repetitive” can be exempted. The government argues that if cabinet ministers' briefing notes are available for public consumption, "it creates a chill" on the kinds of information bureaucrats are willing to prepare for their political masters. Then, in the same breath, justice minister, Felix Collins, said his government was committed to"openness and transparency."
The fear is that the Newfound and Labrador case sets a horrible precedent, potentially emboldening other jurisdictions to follow suit.
So if we're so concerned about the potential domino-effect and eventual downward spiral of access laws, why argue that at the federal level, journalists should embrace the act? The argument may be counterintuitive. So please let me explain.
The federal law has entered a momentous period. On July 7, 1982, the law was given Royal Assent. The law came into force the following year on July 1, 1983. That means this year is the 30th-plus anniversary of a law that was designed to make government more transparent.
Apart from an addition in 1999 that made it a criminal offence to destroy documents (thanks to the Somalia inquiry, which was a low-water mark for the department of National Defence), and the 2006 Federal Accountability Act, which added some 70 institutions to the roster of organizations covered by the act, the law is in badly need of reform. Advocates, including journalists who frequently use the law, say it needs a complete overhaul.
The federal information commissioner is unwilling to go that far, but is calling for reforms, just like her predecessors did. However, instead of demanding action, Suzanne Legault says that she’ll take the next year to study the laws in other jurisdictions such as England and Australia, and then craft some recommendations for reform that she’ll put to the Conservative government. Critics may wish her luck in attempting to engage a government that, like Liberal governments before it, has shown zero interest in reforming the law it seems to be convinced is working fine, thank you very much.
So why am I urging journalists to increase their use of the law? Well, one of the best ways to demonstrate that a more effective law is needed is continuing telling original stories with records obtained through access to information. Courtesy of Google Alerts, I’m able to track stories that derive from this source.
Anecdotally, my impression was that the number of stories has been increasing.
The Canadian Press has stepped up its game with a number of stories: including Bev Oda’s now-infamous $16-dollar glass or orange juice and Jason Kenney’s embarrassing fake citizenship ceremony at Sun Media studios.
The Toronto Star has done impressive work, including those juicy stories about Peter MacKay’s expensive helicopter taxi ride from a fishing camp.
Postmedia’s Mike De Souza writes regular stories based on internal briefing notes at ministries such as the Environment that seem to demonstrate that the government is more interesting in promoting the oil sands industry than protecting the environment.
These stories have put pressure on the government, and forced cabinet ministers to explain themselves. The more of these kinds of stories we do, the greater the accountability, and the more journalists begin realizing that access – weaknesses and all – is worth using, especially if you want hold the government to account.
This kind of spotlight on access is important, given the importance of the next 12 months. If we’re capable of doing stories, even with the help of a weak law that gives the government too many ways to withhold information, and the information commissioner too few powers to force institutions to hand over records, then think of the stories we could do with an even stronger law.
In this 30th year, perhaps, just perhaps citizens may read these stories and take notice. Because ultimately, that’s where the pressure should originate. Because the government will dig in its heels even further, insisting as it has for the past few years, that the Accountability Act and its Open Government initiative prove that it is committed to reform.
So let’s keep the stories coming by using the act. Let’s force the government to answer questions about its budget, cuts to departments, changes to employment insurance, old age security, mortgage rules, food safety, to name just a few areas.
If you feel so inclined to go beyond using the law and advocate for reforms, write to Suzanne Legault once she sets the commission’s website to solicit feedback.
In addition to the anecdotes, here’s one more interesting piece of information: a bit of empirical evidence that more journalists are using the law. Treasury Board statistics for the last five fiscal years beginning in 2006-07, the number of journalists using the law has increased, not only in raw numbers, but as a percentage of all groups filing requests.
Take that Newfoundland and Labrador!