FIPA was back in Ottawa earlier this month, once again talking about reform of the ancient Access to Information Act. This is something we have done going back to the last century, with very little to show for our efforts to-date.
There is a difference this time, however, because the minister responsible for the Act, Treasury Board President Scott Brison, has promised legislation this fall or early in 2017 to bring in some ‘quick wins’ for ATI, followed by a full review of the Act in 2018 (one year before the next federal election).
Recognizing what the government has imposed by way of a time-limited consultation process and legislative agenda, we dealt with a limited number of recommendations in detail in our submission, but urged the Committee to look at the dozens of other recommendations we made to the Information Commissioner during her 2012 consultation.
The government’s proposals include some restatements of what the Liberal Party promised during their election campaign, but some new elements have been added.
For example, the federal Liberals promised during the election to provide the Information Commissioner with order-making power, (similar to what we have long had here in BC). However, the proposals are now raising the possibility that the orders could be subject to an override by ministers . They have also floated the idea that government departments be given the power to bar requesters by claiming their requests are frivolous or vexatious.
Another issue: there is nothing in the government’s proposals about eliminating the exclusions in the Act, the most notorious being the exclusion of anything claimed to be a Cabinet document from review by either the Commissioner or the Federal Court. We pointed out that the number claims of Cabinet confidences have increased dramatically over the last few years, and that if nothing is done to close this “information black hole”, the improvements to ATI will be undermined.
Also missing from the government’s proposals is a legislated duty to document. We pointed out to the Committee members that their equivalents in the BC Legislature—those reviewing the provincial access legislation—had just recommended the government put a duty to document into law. We urged them to follow suit at the federal level.
Hopefully the Committee will take our words and those of other witnesses to heart. Their report on recommended changes to the Act is expected to be released before the summer break.