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Russell Wangersky: Access denied is so much easier

Access to Information and Privacy Act report of the 2014 statutory review
Access to Information and Privacy Act report of the 2014 statutory review

It’s a universal truth: oppositions love access to information laws, and always promise to strengthen them. Governments, meanwhile — even if they’re new governments, fresh from being frustrated oppositions — see access laws as a pain in the rear end, an irritant, or worse.

Russell Wangersky

That is, of course, all the more reason that governments alone should neither set the rules for access, nor be the final ones to determine if something should be released. You cannot get a more precise example of a conflict of interest.

It’s the love-hate relationship with releasing government information that never seems to end.

Federally, Justin Trudeau campaigned, in part, on reviewing federal access to information laws that hadn’t been effectively reviewed in years: in the platform, that promise was unequivocal and far-reaching — “Government data and information should be open by default, in formats that are modern and easy to use. We will update the Access to Information Act to meet this standard.” They promised to make requests cheaper, promised to allow an independent access commissioner to require the release of information, and promised to ensure the law would cover ministers’ offices, as well as the Prime Minister’s Office.

Apparently, that commitment was false — now, the Trudeau Liberals have put those promises on ice for an indefinite amount of time, suggesting that access to information is a complex issue that will take much more time. Really, it isn’t; what’s complex is trying to explain why government openness is good, unless you are the government in question.

But it’s not only the federal Liberals who are accountability-challenged.

A little closer to home, the government of New Brunswick is having problems with access law, too.

There, the provincial government is trying to halt a CBC investigation into water contamination, saying the request is “frivolous and vexatious.”

“We are concerned that the Applicant is using the access to information process and the resources of the Department to fish for information. … We do believe that fishing for information is not a legitimate exercise of the right of access,” Tourism Minister John Ames wrote in a March 24 letter to Anne Bertrand, that province’s access to information commissioner.

Well, of course it is a fishing mission. But that doesn’t make it illegitimate.

Access to information requests are, by nature, fishing missions; if you already know exactly what it is you are looking for, chances are, you have it in your hands. An access request is asking for any other information that may exist, and a government with the interests of its constituents at heart should be ready to hand over and explain that information, even if that involves taking more than a few public lumps.

(It’s worth noting that the New Brunswick government actually had a discussion paper that suggested letting individual departments decide on their own if a request was frivolous and just dismiss it out of hand, instead of having to go to the access commissioner for a ruling. Once again, a clear conflict of interest.)

What governments forget, of course, is that it’s hard to find any friends to support closing the door on legitimate requests. In Newfoundland and Labrador, there was a huge outcry over provincial legislation that severely restricted access to information, to the point that the legislation ended up being overturned.

The problem is, when you say you can’t be bothered to release information, or when you simply disparage those who are looking for it, what the public hears is something completely different.

What they hear, loud and clear, is that you have something to hide.

Opposition after opposition, government after government, we go through the same hoops. But information will always be power, and governments have always loved power more than they love anything else.

Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@tc.tc — Twitter: @Wangersky.

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