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Liberals’ slow movement on Access to Information reform concerns commissioner

Canada’s information commissioner is casting doubt on the Liberal government’s campaign promise to pry open and modernize the oft-criticized Access to Information Act, a tool for Canadians to search out government data and information.

“It causes me concern that we’re talking about conducting a first full review of the act at the beginning of 2018, and I’m not sure reading that timeline that we’re going to see a substantive review before the next election,” Suzanne Legault told host Chris Hall in an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio’s The House.

Earlier this week, Treasury Board President Scott Brison wrote a letter to the standing committee on Access to Information, privacy and ethics responding to their report recommending changes on how to update the act.

Brison promised to implement initial changes to the act early next year with an eye toward reviewing it in early 2018.

While acknowledging that the act is out of date and hasn’t been significantly updated since it came into effect 33 years ago, Brison wrote that there’s a “complexity of changes” and the government will want to take a “prudent” approach about changes.

Some positive movement 

Legault says the government’s language around timelines and consultations worries her.

“I did not see in the response a clear commitment to actualize the mandate letter commitments,” she said. “I am not in [on] the secret here of what the government is going to do. But it causes me concern.”

The Access to Information Act allows people who pay $5 to ask for everything from expense reports and audits to correspondence and briefing notes. Departments are supposed to answer within 30 days or provide valid reasons why they need more time.

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Treasury Board President Scott Brison promised to implement initial changes to the act early next year with an eye toward reviewing it in early 2018. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In May, the Liberal government issued an interim directive on openness and waived all fees associated with Access to Information requests, besides the $5 application charge.

“I think they are the low-hanging fruits. I think they are the easy wins,” Legault said. “But the real proof is going to be in what kind of actual, substantive legislative reforms the government is going to make to the Access to Information Act.”

‘New age, new reality’ 

Besides being criticized as slow and outdated, the Access to Information process has been slammed for being filled with loopholes that allow departments to redact information.

In 2015 Legault submitted a report with dozens of recommendations calling for major changes to the act, including subjecting more of Parliament, including the offices of cabinet ministers and the prime minister, to requests.

Legault told The House she’d also like to see reforms around disclosure, including the protection around cabinet confidences and advice to ministers. Both provisions are automatically redacted and their definitions “can be used very, very liberally,” said Legault.

“The only way to fix that is seriously through amendment to the law,” she said. “We are in the context of open by default. We are in the context of open government. We are in the context of open data. We are in the context of millennials who actually want to have information and are used to having instant information.

“This is the new age. This is the reality.”


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