No freedom without information
Are Mongolia and Colombia more democratic than Canada? If you believe the equations of Canada’s Centre for Law and Democracy, and the Eurozone’s Access Info Europe, it’s a question worth asking.
People equate democracy with freedom to vote and ability to hold governors accountable between elections.
If leaders are not accountable to the voters, then the equation is incomplete — and so is democracy.
Voters cannot hold leaders accountable if they do not have the information they need to ask the right questions of their government, or to assess the answers.
So, when Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy ranks Canada 55th of 93 countries for upholding freedom of information, that’s a pretty serious charge.
So serious that the government’s response to the centre’s study was to deny that it’s true — months after the Canadian Press asked if the government was even taking the study seriously.
Suzanne Legault is Canada’s information commissioner. She said, “the analysis that this group has done is going to be a really useful tool” in her own work.
But according to documents the Canadian Press received after their own Access to Information request, the reaction in the highest offices was somewhat different.
An internal memo last summer to Treasury Board president Tony Clement cites the report’s “weaknesses,” saying the methodology “does not allow for an accurate comparison of the openness of a society and of its government.”
It took five months for CP to get that much. Part of the international study scored timeliness of responses to requests for information. Thirty days is the standard; longer than that is cited as failure.
But fair enough, let’s look at other studies and other methodologies.
Newspapers Canada is a joint project of the Canadian Newspaper Association and the Canadian Community Newspapers Association.
They’ve been doing annual audits of information freedom in Canada since 2005. If they can’t judge the comparative openness of Canadian society and its governments, nobody can.
Their study included the federal government, all Canadian provinces and major cities. It ranks those who actually believe people have a right to information and those who merely pander to slogans.
In their 2012 study, the federal government got an F. That means fewer than half of information requests made in the study were returned on time and contained the actual information requested.
Did this study take into account Canadian societal values of openness?
Well, the provinces collectively got a C, indicating 62.5 to 75 per cent compliance with requests made. (Alberta received a B grade, 75.5 to 87.5 per cent compliance.)
Canadian municipalities collectively got a B, while Calgary and Edmonton each picked up an A.
The study was done by having students mail identically-worded requests for information to each level of government (examples: How many cellphone contracts do you pay for? How big is your government’s vehicle fleet? How much did the government pay for the minister to attend a conference?). They waited for responses and graded them.
Is the federal Treasury Board, which oversees Legault’s commission, satisfied with that methodology or is there a structural weakness here as well?
Go ahead and ask them. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer.
One of the barriers that could get a government downgraded in the study concerns whether a cost estimate comes before an answer to a question.
The federal government rarely puts a cost burden on a request for information. So for them to get an F in that light requires rather active duplicity from a supposedly democratic government.
Alberta does charge for completing information requests but even with that barrier in the way, its performance was much better than the federal government’s.
One measure of accountability and democracy says that when government fears the people, rather than the other way round, you get far better government.
Two recent multi-year studies show our federal government isn’t afraid of us at all.
Thanks to the efforts of watchdog groups like Newspapers Canada and the Centre for Law and Democracy, voters should know where our treasured democracy is being eroded.
And where we need to demand better performance.
Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org.