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.

Just Posted

Alberta hiring more paramedics and buying new ambulances, none for Red Deer

Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer is not concerned the provincial government didn’t… Continue reading

‘My nightmare began again’: Close call as bus carrying Humboldt crash survivor rear-ended

CALGARY — A terrifying ordeal for Humboldt Broncos survivor Ryan Straschnitzki this… Continue reading

Halifax airport operations normalize after Boeing 747 runway overshoot

HALIFAX — The Halifax Stanfield International Airport has resumed normal operations a… Continue reading

Bentley family left without a home grateful for community support

Central Albertans are coming together to support a Bentley family left homeless… Continue reading

Red Deer RCMP ready for new mandatory alcohol screening law

Red Deer RCMP are ready to enforce a new law intended to… Continue reading

WATCH: Red Deer and District Kennel Club Dog Show at Westerner Park

The Red Deer and District Kennel Club is holding a dog show… Continue reading

Pence aide out of running to be Trump’s next chief of staff

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s top pick to replace chief of staff… Continue reading

Swath of South faces wintry mess: Snow, sleet, freezing rain

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A massive storm brought snow, sleet, and freezing rain… Continue reading

‘I killed my best friend’: Opioids’ fatal grip on mayor, pal

MOUNT CARBON, Pa. — Janel Firestone found her son — the 24-year-old,… Continue reading

Brothers, 20, face second-degree murder charge in death of teen: police

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Police west of Toronto say two brothers have been… Continue reading

A young mayor, his friend, and a fatal attraction to opioids

MOUNT CARBON, Pa. — Janel Firestone found her son — the 24-year-old,… Continue reading

GM fights to retain key tax credit amid plant closing plans

WASHINGTON — General Motors is fighting to retain a valuable tax credit… Continue reading

TTC union asks provincial government to step in on transition to Presto

TORONTO — The union representing transit workers in Canada’s most populous city… Continue reading

Small pot growers find roadblocks on path to microcultivation licences

Yan Boissonneault’s daughter was turning blue. Without warning, his baby had stopped… Continue reading

Most Read