Want to know about some seedy things going on behind your back in Ottawa that you, living in a free and democratic society, are entitled to know?
Good luck. Unless you have the patience of a saint and rely up your right to know under the country’s antiquated Access to Information Act, you are likely to be discouraged before your queries are addressed. So you’ll never know.
That’s the finding of Canada’s information watchdog, who says delays in answering queries under the information act are so bogus, they “are eroding Canadians right to know.”
Federal delays in answering queries are getting worse and threaten to scuttle the notion that Canadians are served by an open government, warns information commissioner Suzanne Legault.
In a special report to Parliament, Legault urged government agencies to take “immediate steps” to curb the persistent foot-dragging.
The Access to Information Act has not been significantly updated since winning resounding applause from Parliament with its inception 27 years ago. It has been the source of endless frustrations for many people attempting to tap into the wealth of information that otherwise would remain a secret.
And while politicians hailed the act as an important tool in a democratic society, nothing was said 27 years ago that those in charge if its administration would be wearing lead-weighted boots.
It costs $5 to make an Access to Information request. And while a response is to be answered within 30 days, many government agencies average several months.
“There’s a constant decline year over year. Length of extensions is getting longer. The length of consultations (between government departments) is getting longer,” Legault said.
This is unacceptable. Is the government bent on discouraging access under the act? is the government policing or censoring what it feels the public is entitled — or not entitled — to know?
In a study by Legault’s office, 13 of 24 key government departments received below-average marks.
The Privy Council Office, the central branch that serves the prime minister, received a D last year for foot dragging — taking an average of five months to complete a request.
And the bad boy on the block was the Foreign Affairs Department. It received a “red alert” — a grade below failure. Sixty per cent of requests to that department were not handled within specific timelines.
But Legault’s concerns received the classic, so-what yawn from Parliament. Tory MPs voiced a token concern. “The fact that there’s no real time limit is a huge issue,” responded Stockwell Day, minister responsible for administrating the information law.
But didn’t Legault’s office say a response under the act was to be expected within 30 days?
Other Tory officials boasted that the government has rid itself of the “amber-light system,” which once flagged requests under the act that could attract media or political attention. Bless their pointed little heads.
In fact, the ministers’ offices are entitled to an average of four days advance notice when sensitive requests are about to be released — as long as they don’t delay disclosure.
Legault’s office is investigating three allegations of federal interference in processing requests.
Canada’s so-called information act belongs in the antiquated TV sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, in which the buffoon character Sgt. Schultz keeps repeating: “I know nothing.”
It’s just as laughable when it comes to government accountability.
Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.