Government trump card would make oversight ‘a mirage’: information commissioner

Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault says giving the government a veto over the release of files would turn her federal watchdog role into "a mirage."

OTTAWA — Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault says giving the government a veto over the release of files would turn her federal watchdog role into “a mirage.”

Legault told a Commons committee studying reform of the Access to Information Act she firmly opposes the idea of a ministerial trump card over proposed new order-making powers for her office.

The Liberal government is floating the notion of a veto that would give the federal cabinet power to block release of documents even if Legault ordered disclosure.

The Access to Information Act allows requesters who pay $5 to seek a range of federal files — from correspondence and briefing notes to expense reports and meeting minutes.

Currently the information commissioner, an ombudsman for users of the access law, can investigate complaints and recommend that records be released. But she cannot force a government agency to do so and must use the courts to pursue the matter further.

During last year’s election campaign, the Liberals promised changes to the access regime, including new authority for the information commissioner to issue “binding orders” for disclosure of documents.

Provincial commissioners in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Prince Edward Island have powers to order release of government information. Many openness advocates have called for the federal commissioner to have similar authority.

The Liberals recently included the proposal in a first round of reforms to be introduced in legislation later this year or early next. As part of an online consultation, the government notes some jurisdictions have combined order-making powers for the commissioner with the concept of a ministerial or cabinet override.

Legault told MPs at the Thursday meeting she would “definitely not be in favour of such a thing.”

“I think it then creates an oversight model that is actually a mirage. And we’re back into complete political decision about disclosure,” she said.

“If that were the direction of the government, I think we should stick with the ombudsman’s model. Because at least we have an independent process.”

Legault indicated she has no objection to a system under which her release orders would be subject to review by a judge. But she drew the line at politicians having the final say as to what information would be made public.

“I don’t know what the government’s justification would be for a ministerial veto,” she said.

“This is something that we were not expecting.”

Legault’s office plans to submit detailed comments on the government proposals, which also include applying the act “appropriately” to the offices of the prime minister and his cabinet members, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.

Earlier this month, Treasury Board President Scott Brison announced an immediate waiver of search and copying fees levied on access requesters. However, he kept the $5 application fee in place.

Legault reiterated her long-standing position Thursday that the $5 fee should be scrapped, given that public tax dollars already fund creation of federal records. Her office, which is covered by access law, stopped charging the fee in 2010.

It costs a federal agency between $51 and $55 to process the $5 fee if it is paid by cash or cheque. The cost to process a payment electronically is 50 cents. However, most federal agencies covered by the law are not part of the electronic-payment pilot project.

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