Join the “Open Government Coalition” to help push for stronger access-to-information laws and systems in Canada
Any citizen group dealing with Canadian governments understands all too well the problem of government secrecy.
The culture of secrecy within governments:
- encourages wrongdoing;
- creates waste;
- helps the ruling party push its agenda forward even if a majority of public opposes the agenda, and;
- makes government accountability much more difficult.
The Open Government Coalition is pushing to close the many loopholes in the federal Access to Information Act (ATI Act) and to make the federal government’s access-to-information system more open and accessible and strictly enforced.
In 1994, then-Justice Minister Allan Rock pledged to strengthen the federal ATI Act, but it was not until early 2001 that then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien set up a government task force to examine the flaws in the Act and the access system.
Chrétien was responding to pressure from a group of MPs, led by Liberal MP John Bryden, who had set up their own “MPs on Access Committee” and were pushing for changes to the Act and access system. In addition, in spring 2000 the Canadian Association of Journalists held a conference in Toronto inviting citizen groups to work together on the access to government information issue, and the Open Government Canada (OGC) coalition formed out of that conference and was also pressuring the federal government.
Unfortunately, the government’s Access to Information Review Task Force was made up of public servants from departments which are in a fundamental conflict of interest because they are regulated by the law, failed to disclose key information such as the results of its research, and failed to consult in a meaningful and open way with Canadians.
The Access to Information Task Force’s June 2002 report, which set out 139 detailed recommendations, did include the following positive general proposals. However, the Task Force failed to propose closing the following key gaps in the access law and system identified in OGC’s July 2001 Position Paper (which set out 47 recommendations for changes), and in some areas the Task Force actually recommended weakening access rights.
As is often the case, the Task Force was just a delay tactic, as the federal government failed to act on the Task Force’s report. In fact, in late 2001 the government instead proposed new so-called “anti-terrorism” laws to keep more information secret from the public.
Democracy Watch’s Open Government Coalition has been formed to campaign for changes to Canada’s access-to-information laws and systems. Becoming a member group of the coalition is very easy. Just sign on to the 7 Recommendations to Strengthen Canada’s Access to Government Information System set out below and send a note stating that your group wants to join the coalition.
The Gomery Commission Inquiry into the Liberal government’s sponsorship scandal, the Conservative government’s Afghan detainee document disclosure scandal and the Conservatives’ access interference scandal, among many other scandals involving unethical and secretive activities by politicians and lobbyists, have opened a window of opportunity over the next few years to strengthen government access-to-information laws.
Democracy Watch feels a common approach is essential on this issue. Every member of Parliament, even those in opposition, reached their position using the system that is currently in place. Most have an interest in keeping the loopholes in place, and it will take a large, broad-based coalition to convince the federal political parties that the system should be made more accountable and transparent.
While these changes may appear difficult to attain, the victories Democracy Watch has won by organizing the Canadian Community Reinvestment Coalition — including our success in defeating the proposed bank mergers in 1998 — as well as the changes Democracy Watch’s Government Ethics Coalition and Money in Politics Coalition have already won, have taught us that broad-based coalitions can overcome even the wealthiest special interests.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Former federal Information Commissioner John Reid released his version of a stronger Act in October 2005.
On November 4, 2005, the federal Conservative Party pledged to pass 52 measures to increase the ethics and accountability of the federal government as the first thing they will do if they are elected, including several measures to strengthen the federal government’s access-to-information system.
However, the Conservatives’ broke their election promises by introducing and passing a so-called “Accountability Act” in December 2006 that contained only 30 measures, and many of those measures are weaker than promised. The Conservatives only included one of their promised 8 open government measures in the Accountablity Act.
To see Democracy Watch’s news release about the Conservatives’ broken promises, click here.
The Gomery Commission Inquiry into the federal sponsorship scandal also made recommendations to strengthen the Act and access system in its final report released in February 2006.
In 2007, and again in February 2009, the NDP MP Pat Martin introduced a private member bill that includes the changes recommended by former Information Commissioner John Reid.
Also in February 2009, current federal Information Commissioner Robert Marleau released his 12 recommendations for strengthening the federal Access to Information Act and enforcement system. The House Access, Privacy and Ethics Committee issued a report in June 2009 endorsing some of the recommendations, but the Conservative government rejected all the recommendations in December 2009.
In September 2010, information and privacy commissioners for governments across Canada issued a call for open government.
Other recent reports by federal Information Commissioners highlighting how the access-to-information system is in crisis have increased the pressure.
In the 2011 federal election, almost all the federal parties made open government promises — however, most of their promises focused on making already publicly available information more easily accessible, not on strengthening the ATI Act.
The federal Conservative government signed on to the international Open Government Partnership in September 2011, and as a result they must make significant commitments in order to be accepted by the OGP Steering Committee as a member of OGP.
As a result, it continues to be very important to let all federal political parties know that Canadians want democratic reforms to open government rules and the enforcement system, and to continue push them to promise such reforms in their election campaign platforms.
Join the Open Government Coalition
The following 5 organizations make up the Open Government Coalition:
Canadian Health Coalition, Canadian Labour Congress, Democracy Education Network, Democracy Watch and Forest Ethics.
Your organization can join the Open Government Coalition by sending an email to [email protected] signing on to the following 7 recommendations for strengthening the federal Access to Information Act (ATI Act) and access-to-information system in the following key ways:
- any type of record created by any entity that receives significant funding from or is connected to the federal government, or was created by the federal government and fulfills public interest functions, should be automatically covered by the Access to Information Act (as in the United Kingdom);
- all exemptions under the ATI Act should be discretionary, and limited by a proof of harm test and a public interest override (as in B.C. and Alberta);
- the ATI Act should require every entity covered by the Act (as in the United Kingdom, U.S., Australia and New Zealand): to create detailed records for all decisions and actions; to routinely disclose records that are required to be disclosed; to assign responsibility to individuals for the creation and maintenance of each record, and; to maintain each record so that it remains easily accessible;
- severe penalties should be created for not creating records, for not maintaining records properly, and for unjustifiable delays in responses to requests;
- the Information Commissioner should be given explicit powers under the ATI Act: to order the release of a record (as in the United Kingdom, Ontario, B.C. and Quebec); to penalize violators of the law, and; to require systemic changes in government departments to improve compliance (as in the United Kingdom)
- funding to the access to information system and enforcement should be increased to solve backlog problems instead of increasing administrative barriers such as limiting requests in any way, and fees for access should be lower overall and standardized for every entity covered the ATI Act; and
- Parliament must be required to review the ATI Act every 5 years to ensure that problem areas are corrected.