Modernizing the Access to Information Act
Between elections, what tools can Canadians use to hold their federal government to account? One important tool is the Access to Information Act. You may not have heard of it, but it’s a vitally important law that lets any Canadian request information about what the government is doing, including just what our tax dollars are being spent on, and by whom. And even more importantly, it creates a legal responsibility for the government to provide the information.
In March, Canada’s Information Commissioner released a special report containing 85 recommendations to update the Act. The current law has been in place since 1982 and without major reform since, in spite of the fact that as the Commissioner puts it, “much has changed within government since that time, including how the government is organized, how decisions are made and how information is generated, collected, stored, managed and shared.” So it only makes sense that this law be adapted for the realities of the 21st century.
The first big recommendation is extending the Act; currently, many parts of government are not even covered. Some, like the House of Commons and Senate, are familiar to Canadians. Others, such as the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs, are virtually unknown – even though their budget is over $500 million. Other entities that are partly arms-length from the government, such as Canada Health Infoway (which has received more than $2 billion in federal government funding since 2001), are also not covered by the Act.
There’s no good reason why these taxpayer-funded bodies are not covered. There’s little point in a transparency law that doesn’t follow much of the money in the first place.
In terms of the type of information released, another important recommendation would require the government to provide data in an “open, reuseable and accessible format.” The Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) has on many occasions requested information, only to receive boxes of blurry, photocopied documents, which were obviously printed off from a program like Excel. This is a pointless waste of everyone’s time, money and paper; in 2015, there’s simply no reason most data can’t be supplied electronically.
Perhaps most importantly, the Commissioner suggests that when grants or loans are given to third parties – referred to in some circles as “subsidies” or “corporate welfare,” that the recipients not be permitted to withhold information about repayment. Under the current rules, many large corporations claim “commercial sensitivity” as a reason not to release details. To take just a single example of dozens, consider Mitel Networks of Ottawa, which received $60 million from the government in 2002. To this day, the company has refused to let the government disclose any information about repayment of that loan (if there has been any repayment). This needs to change.
In addition, the Commissioner recommends that government proactively publish information about all grants and loans given by government, including the status of repayment and compliance with any terms – rather than forcing Canadians to request the information first. When governments spend money, the default position should be to account for it.
Not every recommendation in the Commissioner’s report is a slam-dunk: opening the request system up to people outside of Canada, for example, seems unnecessary. But on balance, many would be big improvements.
It may not be the sexiest political issue during an election year, but transparent and accountable government is extremely important in any democratic society. With her report, the Information Commissioner has drawn attention to some of the defects of our current Access to Information Act. The government would be well advised to take action on many of its recommendations.