You would be hard pressed to find a politician who campaigns on a platform of opacity. When it’s time to ask you for your vote, everyone is on Team Transparency. It’s only after they get elected that politicians tend to circle the wagons around information and start behaving like the public’s right to know is something to be fought at every turn.
Access to information is critical to holding governments accountable. Though most citizens will never make a request for information, we rely on journalists and other organizations to do so and to pass that information on to us. Without access to information laws, we would never know about the illegal donations made by Alberta municipalities and post-secondary institutions to the provincial Progressive Conservatives, uncovered in 2012 by CBC investigative reporter Charles Rusnell. The robo-calls employed during the 2011 federal election would still be secret were it not for information dug up by Post Media reporters Stephen Maher and Glen McGregor, whose requests under the Access to Information Act revealed Elections Canada was investigating an electoral “scam” linked to the Conservative Party.
Federally, the Access to Information Act (ATI) gives any Canadian citizen, resident or company who pays a $5 fee the right to request and receive information from federal institutions, including Crown corporations. The law, in place since 1983, sets out that requests for information must be responded to—providing the requested information or an explanation as to why the request will take longer—within 30 days.
Last month, the information commissioner of Canada tabled her annual report to Parliament. Suzanne Legault, identifying a number of weaknesses in the system, reported that a number of departments don’t have enough staff to even acknowledge receipt of access requests for six months, with some taking as long as three years to respond.
“All together, these circumstances tell me in no uncertain terms that the integrity of the federal access to information program is at serious risk,” Legault said in a press release.
The provincial system isn’t in much better shape, according to critics, with inconsistency across departments and municipalities the most frequent complaint. Associate minister of Accountability, Transparency and Transformation Don Scott hopes the current review of FOIP will address these and other concerns. Scott travelled the province to gather feedback on how FOIP can be improved. He heard from 150 Albertans at these sessions, from another 399 who completed an online survey and received 30 written submissions.
Tony Clark, director of research with the Alberta Federation of Labour, suggests that most of the problems with FOIP would be resolved with cleaner language.
“As it is, interpretations vary from department to department,” he explains, “especially the part that says they have to help the applicant.”
His concerns are echoed by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s Derek Fildebrandt, whose attempts to uncover information about expenses incurred by members of Edmonton and Calgary city councils revealed the level of inconsistency to be found from municipality to municipality, which are also subject to the province’s FOIP law along with universities, school boards and other government-funded institutions.
Last fall, the CTF filed FOIP requests for the expense claims of former mayor Stephen Mandel and a number of councillors; at the same time, they made an identical request to the City of Calgary.
“Edmonton responded by levying unreasonable search fees totaling $11 580 that were clearly designed to discourage investigation of councillors’ expenses,” Fildebrandt says. According to the CTF, obtaining copies of Mandel’s expenses alone would trigger a fee of $4630. The same request made in Calgary for Mayor Nenshi’s expenses? A mere $25.
Both Clark and Fildebrandt suggest governments need to be more proactive in disclosing information, and it would appear that Alberta’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton agrees with them. In her submission to Scott’s FOIP review, she called for a legislated requirement that public bodies commit to “proactive disclosure” of information, minimizing the need for formal requests from citizens and journalists.
While acknowledging that Alberta has taken some positive steps lately, such as the mandatory expense disclosure policy for MLAs and senior civil servants introduced following the Alberta Health Services executive expense scandal last year, Clayton pointed to a study of four provinces’ FOIP legislation conducted by the Centre for Law and Democracy in 2012 which ranked Alberta’s the least transparent.
While the federal government, through Treasury Board President Tony Clement, has dismissed any criticism of their track record, we are assured that these criticisms have been heard loudly and clearly by his provincial counterparts.
“The lack of consistency is one of the things we heard from different communities, including the media, during our consultations,” Scott says in a telephone interview. He plans to bring forward legislative amendments next year to strengthen the Act, but was hesitant to specify exactly what changes we might expect.