About the only thing transparent with Premier Ed Stelmach’s government today is Stelmach’s prized election promise of an open government. It’s as transparent as a Baggie full of hot air.
Alberta’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Frank Work reinforces that observation. In his annual report released last week, Work castigated Stelmach when it comes to releasing sensitive information under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy law — in particular, to the media.
The commissioner says government employees responsible for releasing information are routinely grilled by deputy ministers to prolong approval of certain access requests. But the final word ultimately comes from Stelmach.
Work’s report comes hot on the heels of a report by the federal information commissioner, castigating the federal government of Stephen Harper.
In her report, Suzanne Legault said Canada has lost sight of why the government passed the federal Freedom of Information Act in the first place. “ . . . Overworked bureaucrats largely focus on the technical application of legal loopholes to withhold information,” she said.
When Stelmach hit the election trail in 2006, he said his top priority was to govern with integrity, accountability and transparency.
That promise has yet to bear fruit, claims Work. “What I do not see, for the most part, is leadership at the political level in terms of getting information out, being proactive and fostering a culture of openness,” Work wrote.
Stelmach’s promise of transparency now seems little more than the use of a convenient buzz word to get attention during electioneering.
“Accountability and transparency are the mantras of our times,” said Work.
“Add evidence based decision-making and you have the basis for just about every election speech given in the past decade. And yet, I feel we are confronted by a disconnect.”
Work does, in all fairness, accentuate the positive, saying: “There is a reasonably good degree of transparency . . . in Alberta. We have the degree of accessibility we enjoy because of a group of well-trained, dedicated” FOIP co-ordinators.
But he still casts doubts on Stelmach’s claimed leadership culture of openness, accusing him of meddling, and purposely dragging his feet with requests under the legislation. He singles out requests made by journalists that are subjected to intense review and are frequently put on the back burner.
“I believe this should not happen. There should be no discrimination with respect to access requests by the media,” he said. “But a law is only a law, and when it comes to obeying it, you can do what is minimally necessary or you can embrace the spirit of the law.”
Work maintains Stelmach doesn’t embrace that spirit.
“It’s a matter of leadership,” he says. “I see a lack of leadership at the provincial level with respect to access to information. It is the difference between a culture of secrecy and a culture of openness. If you are going to promise transparency, then embrace it.”
Stelmach, Canada’s highest-paid premier, is walking on thin ice these days. Certainly the ice is more transparent than his government.
Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.