Don’t Tackle Increasing Access to Information Complaints by Silencing the Watchdog

Originally posted in Huffington Post

Flags of Canada and Australia
Imagine shared under CC license by jasohill on Flickr

The federal Access to Information system has been in crisis for a number of years, and last week the crisis deepened.

Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault told the Commons Access to Information, Ethics and Privacy committee (ETHI) that the number of complaints her office receives from people being denied access to documents by the federal government has shot up 30 percent over the past year, and that her budget has been reduced by 11 percent over the past four years. Without more resources to deal with this surge in complaints, delays will inevitably result.

In fact, she stated that if she did not get additional funding, “Canadians’ quasi constitutional right of access will be increasingly denied.”

Any delay in the Commissioner’s office means information requesters will have to wait even longer to get their documents. It also means that if the government digs in its heels, requesters can’t even get their day in Federal Court until the Commissioner’s office finishes its review of the file.

Commissioner Legault says she has repeatedly requested additional funding from the government, with no results to date.

Interestingly, the Australian government (which enjoys very close relations with the Harper ™ Government) is setting a worrying precedent by going much further in undercutting their Information Commissioner. They are actually in the process of abolishing the office entirely.

The Abbott government claims axing the Commissioner will save AUS$10.2 million over four years. Part of this seems to be based on a predicted drop in the number of complaints.

When the Australian Commissioner’s office was created in 2010, the cost of a complaint dropped from AUS$816 to zero. With this financial barrier removed, the number of complaints subsequently rose from 110 to more than 500.

Unsurprisingly, with funding for the Commissioner’s office based on an anticipated 110 complaints, it couldn’t keep up with the increased volume of complaints, with delays being the result. The Abbott government was critical of these delays and, rather than increasing funding, used this as a justification for abolishing the office.

Presumably, their move to resume charging $800 plus to file a complaint should considerably reduce the number of complaints.

Funding has been cut, offices closed and staff laid off in anticipation of the law abolishing the Commissioner passing parliament. However, they have run into some roadblocks in running the Commissioner out of town; the government has declined to move the bill forward for debate and a vote, probably because the Australian Senate is not controlled by the government, and they know they would lose. The Senate has now finished its activities until the new year.

The very strange result is that the Australian Commissioner lives on, but has no budget or office. The Commissioner put a notice up on his website earlier this week saying they would continue in operations while “…liaising with the Australian Government about transition arrangements for freedom of information matters.”

Although the Harper Government is unlikely to axe the Information Commissioner in an election year, the Australian government does set a bad example, and our government could follow suit by using the increasing delays and frustration from years of underfunding the Commissioner’s office to argue for abolition in Omnibudget 2016 or 2017.

If they get re-elected…