Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A Made in Canada Looking Glass

Imagine if you lived in a place governed by a partisan political apparatus so certain of it's ability to control the message that it felt perfectly free to extrude whatever candy floss it wished while at the same time doing the near opposite.

We're moving in that direction right here.

Today's Globe carries a story about the chill descending on Ottawa as politicians, bureaucrats and lobbyists try and come to terms with the grand new morning of Harper's Accountability Act.

But nary a word about the effect of the Act on access to information.

Remember back in April when information commissioner John Reid released his critique of the Act? Remember the 10 new reasons that bureaucrats can use to deny FOI requests?

From the Gazette of May 3.

"...The Conservatives promised to "give citizens the right to know," by strengthening the access law. On the campaign trail, Harper criticized the Liberal government for its failure to reform a system in which civil servants could head off legitimate inquiries. The system as it existed under the Liberals, Harper charged, made the sponsorship scandal possible.

But instead of a strengthened act that would facilitate and enlarge public access to public information, the Conservatives have brought in proposals that the information commissioner last week called the most "retrograde and dangerous" since the act came into force in 1983.

The Tories' Accountability Act actually restricts access to information. Although it would add 19 government entities that would be covered by the act, it also would create 10 new loopholes that would let civil servants reject information requests.

The Accountability Act would also keep draft audits or audit working papers under wraps for 15 years. Currently, such papers are not automatically kept secret. As a reform measure, this is all the more bizarre since it was the release of a draft internal audit that exposed much of the sponsorship scandal.

In Reid's view, the Tory package would reduce the amount of information available to Canadians. It would undermine the role of the information commissioner and it would allow the government greater latitude to control the flow of information.

Controlling the flow of information would also allow the government of the day to bury embarrassing disclosures, or even misdeeds.

In the matter of the public's right to public information, the Harper government should remember U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis's famous dictum, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

The whole point of access-to-information legislation, after all, is to ensure that governments operate in a climate of openness and transparency."

Another teeny weeny incremental step.

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