Wednesday, January 19, 2011

'Freedom of Information' another empty promise.

'Freedom of Information' another empty promise.


Wednesday, 12 January 2011 02:01 Lethbridge Herald Opinon
Running for political office? You'd better promise "open government" and "transparency."

Everybody's in favour of that, apparently, in civic affairs along with provincial and federal functions.

But once they're elected, it seems, some politicians must be forgetting that pledge. "Freedom of information" becomes just another empty promise.

How else could you explain the news that
Canada now places last among five parliamentary democracies, when it comes to answering citizens' requests for information.

Canada was one of the first nations to pass "freedom of information" laws back in 1983, when Pierre Trudeau was still prime minister but a London-based study shows they're largely disregarded today. Politicians and civil servants acting on their command do all they can, often as not, to hide any information that could show one of them in a poor light.

Citizens of Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and Ireland are all better-served when they ask their governments for disclosure, it shows. Based on official statistics counting requests for information, denials, appeals, court decisions and other related factors, we score lowest.

Researchers at University College in London say this country's law now administered by a government-appointed commissioner is no longer functional. Almost everything, it seems, becomes some kind of state secret.

"Canada comes last, as it has continually suffered from a combination of low use, low political support and a weak information commissioner since its inception," their report says.

While the federal Access to Information Act says any Canadian is entitled to request government-controlled information, the system has become antiquated. Even the commissioner, Suzanne Legault, agrees with their verdict.

"We were seen as the leaders," but those days are long gone, she admits.

"We can use our own data, and come to the conclusion that our system is in decline."

Just 16 per cent of the 35,000 requests for information filed last year led to full disclosure of the information sought, she reports. Ten years ago, it was 40 per cent.

That's because Legault's office is denied the resources it needs to improve service, observers say. And she has no power to order the release of information requested, even when there's no over-riding reason it should remain secret.

That's why Canadians are so often left in the dark when important decisions are being made, whether it's about buying fighter aircraft without calling for tenders, or building new prisons for "unreported crime." If our government won't release studies supporting its big-spending plans, we clearly have a right to remain skeptical.

Not that all the blame lies in Ottawa, of course. Provincial governments may also excel at burying or suppressing information that upsets them. And locally, some city council candidates have criticized Lethbridge officials who, they claim, are not totally transparent in reporting the city's financial affairs.

What makes our nation's bottom ranking more odious, however, is the present Conservative government's promise nearly five years ago to make reforms to our Access to Information Act one of their top priorities. If Stephen Harper's administration is really working on this, it must be another state secret.

Or maybe it was just another empty promise.