Canada’s “open government” election

On January 23, for the first time in 20 years, a Canadian federal election may deliver real reform in government transparency and accountability.

The ruling Liberals, as a result of the sponsorship scandal, were forced to introduce some half-hearted transparency measures in 2005, but there is a strong national consensus that much more needs to be done to make government open and accountable.

The Conservative and New Democratic parties have stepped up to the plate to answer these demands. But the Liberals have made no further pledges during this election, except one: Prime Minister Paul Martin promised to implement all the recommendations of Justice Gomery’s second report, due in February, on how to prevent a similar scandal.

This may sound impressive, except for the fact that we have no idea what those recommendations will be. After being stalled and stonewalled on reform by the Liberals for decades, the last thing Canadians need is yet another leap of faith.

Whose platform is the most promising?

Which party has the most promising policies? So far it’s the Conservatives. Democracy Watch – Canada’s leading watchdog for democratic reform — rates them highest, and so does FIPA.

The Montreal Gazette editorialized that “It’s hard to find fault with Stephen Harper’s 52-point program to clean up politics in Ottawa…. This debate is long overdue and the Conservatives have done us all a service by setting the bar commendably high. Let’s see if the other parties can match them.” (Nov. 8, 2005)

With their platform to strengthen government accountability in 12 key areas, as well as democratic reforms to the Senate and nomination races, the Conservatives are far ahead of the other four parties. Their pledge to pass a Federal Accountability Act as their first act if elected appears to be a difficult promise to break, and the cost of doing so would be heavy.

The centerpiece of the Conservative’s platform would be urgently-needed reforms to the 1983 Access to Information Act (ATI Act), a law that allows citizens to request federal government records for a $5 fee, but which is crippled by excessive exceptions and battered by 20 years of neglect and counter-measures.

FIPA endorses Information Commissioner’s recipe for reform

What FIPA regards as the best model for reform of the ATI Act came not from a politician but from federal Information Commissioner John Reid. Last year he proposed a draft bill that would:

  • create a duty to create and preserve records,
  • make the system speedier,
  • lower fees,
  • strengthen powers of oversight,
  • extend the Act to cover all crown corporations and government-created foundations,
  • create an independent review of claims of Cabinet confidentiality, and
  • narrow the Act’s exceptions by making them discretionary, subject to an injury test, and subject to a “public interest override” as in most provincial freedom of information acts.

The Conservatives endorse Reid’s points and add others, such as giving the Commissioner order-making power, and extending ATI coverage to the independent Officers of Parliament.

Such democratic reforms, 20 years overdue, would probably be one of the few bills the Tories and NDP would agree upon – because they are procedural and not ideological, and born of a shared frustration of being long in opposition – and so would likely be passed briskly in a Tory minority government.

NDP accountability platform

The New Democratic Party issued its accountability platform last November: “NDP MP Ed Broadbent laid out a seven point ethics package the NDP will be introducing to deal with unregulated lobbying, political cronyism, access to information and other issues the Martin government continues to ignore.”

In a TV debate, Harper said he has no disagreement with Broadbent’s plan.

The NDP would reform the ATIA to make ministers of the Crown, their exempt staffs and officers of parliament subject to the Act, release third-party contracts and public opinion polling, and open up government records that are more than 30 years old. FIPA agrees these would be good moves.

Of Ottawa’s 246 Crown corporations, agencies and foundations, only 49 are subject to the ATI Act. Under existing law, the numerous foundations tasked with spending $9-billion of tax money cannot be inspected by Canadians, the auditor-general or even elected parliamentarians.

This may be the most urgent ATIA reform: both NDP and Tories have pledged to extend the Act’s coverage to all these entities, while the Liberals do not.

And the rest..

The Bloc Quebecois and Green Party websites briefly cite the need for new accountability laws.

By contrast, the Liberal’s 86-page platform “Securing Canada’s Success” oddly makes no mention of the ATI Act or new transparency plans whatsoever.

The Liberals have manifested their hostility toward public access to information in many ways. For example:

  • Failing to deliver the “first-class reforms” they promised to the ATI Act;
  • Passing a badly-flawed whistleblower protection bill, which includes a gag order giving Ottawa the power to cloak in secrecy for five years the details of any wrongdoing reported;
  • Enabling government to apply “security certificates” which suspend the ATI Act to ward off any ATI request it deems a security risk to the state,
  • Passing the Security of Information Act, which binds thousands of bureaucrats to secrecy for life for anything the government regards as in the state’s interest
  • Delaying information release to the public by delaying and ‘red-flagging’ ATI requests made by media, critics and Opposition MPs, and routing them to political aides for a ‘spin cycle’.
  • Starving the information commissioner’s office for funds, and filing 26 nuisance lawsuits against it.

Yet, to be fair, the Liberals made modest progress on a few points, mainly due to Liberal MP Reg Alcock, president of the Treasury Board:

  • The PM ordered the re-establishment of the position of comptroller general, a rebuilding of internal audit, and the appointment of professionally accredited comptrollers to sign off on all new spending initiatives in every government department.
  • They added a dozen crown corporations and foundations to the ATI Act’s coverage.
  • They overhauled government advertising and public opinion research contracting with a more competitive and transparent process
  • They created a new policy of proactive disclosure of travel and hospitality expenses of ministers, parliamentary secretaries, political staff and senior public servants
  • Five-year special audits of Crown corporations will be conducted by the auditor general and posted on her website.

When you go to the polls

FIPA urges voters to remember that government accountability and transparency are universal and timeless principles that far transcend political parties and ideologies. Choose accordingly! See you at the polls Jan. 23.

David Loukidelis re-appointed as BC’s Information and Privacy Commissioner

BC’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, David Loukidelis, has been appointed for a second six-year term. Members of a Special Committee of the Legislature unanimously recommended that the House reappoint Loukidelis.

“During his tenure as Commissioner, David Loukidelis has earned a well-deserved reputation as an effective advocate for the access to information and privacy rights of British Columbians,” said Committee Chair, John Rustad, MLA. We are pleased to recommend that his balanced oversight continue for another six years.”

In its deliberations, members of the Committee considered it appropriate to interview Mr. Loukidelis before deciding whether or not to undertake an open competition. As a result of their interview and their assessment of the Commissioner’s performance during his first term, it was clear to the Committee that a further search was unlikely to result in a more accomplished applicant.

David Loukidelis was a founding member of the BC Freedom of Information & Privacy Association (FIPA) and was its President for several years.

A September 2005 amendment to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act removed a provision limiting a Commissioner to serving only one six-year term. The amendment brought the Act into line with the statutes governing the other statutory officers in British Columbia, as well as those governing Information and Privacy Commissioners in other jurisdictions.

Read the Committee’s report

FIPA report calls for rethink of Anti-terrorism Act

FIPA has submitted a paper to the House of Commons Subcommittee on Public Safety and National Security, which is currently reviewing Canada’s Anti-terrorism Act. Entitled “Canada’s Anti-terrorism Act: an unjustified limitation of freedom of information and privacy rights”, the report calls for the rollback of changes wrought by the Act.

In FIPA’s view, the tragic events of September 11 have been used as a pretext for an expansion of police power and surveillance practices heretofore unacceptable to the vast majority of Canadians.

The report states that “The ATA was unnecessary at its conception and remains so today, not only because it is based on the false belief that civil rights must be traded for security, but also because the police powers and surveillance capabilities necessary to fight terrorism already existed before 9/11.”

Download the new FIPA report.

Parliamentary review of Canada’s Anti-terrorism Act begins

The Canadian Parliament’s Subcommittee on Public Safety and National Security began a review of Canada’s Anti-terrorism Act on December 16, 2004.

The Subcommittee will be accepting written submissions and holding public hearings during winter and spring 2005, with a view to tabling a report in the House of Commons in autumn of the same year. The Subcommittee is hoping to hear from as many groups as it can during the upcoming hearings.

A special committee of the Senate is also conducting “a comprehensive review of the provisions and operations of the Anti-terrorism Act.”

The Anti-terrorism Act and other legislation passed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks placed far-reaching powers in the hands of police, security intelligence agencies, customs and immigration officials, and other authorities. These new powers were introduced with little public awareness of their impact on civil liberties, privacy, and access to government information.

The Parliamentary review is vital to an informed public debate and assessment of the legislation and its impacts, which critics say has undermined our democratic traditions but done little to make most Canadians safer.

Those interested in appearing before the Committee are invited to submit their request in writing to the Subcommittee Clerk by February 11, 2005. Written submissions may be submitted to the Clerk no later than February 28, 2005.

Information about procedures for making presentations or submitting papers.
Links of Interest

Remarks of the Minister of Justice to the Special Committee of the Senate on the Anti-terrorism Act, February 21, 2005

CANADA’S ANTI-TERRORISM ACT: AN UNJUSTIFIED LIMITATION OF FREEDOM OF INFORMATION AND PRIVACY RIGHTS – Submission to the House of Commons Subcommittee on Public Safety and National Security– BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, March 2005:

SUBMISSION BY ONTARIO INFORMATION AND PRIVACY COMMISSIONER

WAR ON TERRORISM WATCH
This site, developed and hosted by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), shines a light on the growing list of similar measures governments in Canada, the United States, and Europe have taken in the name of the “war on terrorism.” It aims to encourage informed debate and discussion by providing the latest information and analysis available

PRIVATE NO MORE
Chris Cobb
Ottawa Citizen
December 16, 2004
Terrorism and technology are exacting a high price from Canadians, undermining privacy and eroding civil liberties to a degree that most of us don’t realize. Few Canadians understand the degree to which our most personal information is now readily available to the FBI, CIA and other U.S. authorities – not to mention our own law enforcement equivalents.
Worse, say critics, federal security legislation and cross-border agreements rushed through with little debate or public discussion have undermined our democratic traditions but done little to make most Canadians safer.

Read the full article