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Feds dispute Canada's poor global ranking in freedom of information

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OTTAWA - The Harper government is dismissing a report that ranks it 55th in the world for upholding freedom of information, saying it has a sterling record for openness.

But a four-page document outlining the federal rebuttal took five months to release after a request under the Access to Information Act — underscoring the very delay problem that contributed to Canada's dismal ranking.

A human-rights group based in Halifax has issued three report cards since 2011 on Canada's anemic standing in the world with regard to so-called right-to-know legislation.

The Centre for Law and Democracy used a 61-point tool to measure Canada's legislation against that of other countries, in co-operation with Madrid-based Access Info Europe.

Canada's standing in September 2011 was 40th of 89 countries, fell to 51st in June last year, then to 55th of 93 countries last September, behind Mongolia and Colombia.

"While standards around the world have advanced, Canada's access laws have stagnated and sometimes even regressed," the centre concluded, noting Canada was a world leader in 1983 when its federal information law came into force.

The research won praise from Canada's information commissioner, Suzanne Legault, who said "the analysis that this group has done is going to be a really useful tool" in her own investigation into freedom-of-information issues.

But an internal memo last summer to Treasury Board President Tony Clement cites the report's "weaknesses," saying the methodology "does not allow for an accurate comparison of the openness of a society and of its government."

The memo from Michelle d'Auray, then secretary of the Treasury Board which oversees the access-to-information system, noted the report did not take into account the government's pro-active disclosure of information; the 2006 expansion of the Act to cover some 250 additional entities such as Crown corporations; or years of court rulings that reinforce citizens' right to information.

The internal memo was among a group of records requested from Treasury Board last September by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

The law requires a response within 30 days, but the agency gave itself a 120-day extension — four additional months — so it could consult with the Privy Council Office, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's own department.

The report card from the Centre for Law and Democracy found that such unilateral, lengthy extensions are invoked too often by federal departments, calling delay a "classical way of effectively denying requests."

"Public authorities should be limited to one extension of no more than 30 days, applicable only in appropriate cases," the centre said in a key recommendation for reform.

In December last year, Clement released 2011-2012 statistics on the operation of the Access to Information Act, saying the numbers helped demonstrate that "our government is the most transparent government in Canadian history."

But Legault, referring to the same statistics, said too many departments were granting themselves generous time extensions for responses, among other problems.

"On timeliness, unfortunately, we're seeing a clear regression, and that's really negative," she said in an interview last month.

The Centre for Law and Democracy responded to Treasury Board's critique of its methodology, in particular to the claim the Harper government's proactive disclosure of some information should have earned points.

"Although proactive disclosure is important, it does not guarantee access to categories of sensitive information — such as information which could expose significant malfeasance or which is embarrassing for government — which are essential to real public accountability," says a note provided to The Canadian Press by Michael Karanicolas and Toby Mendel.

The note adds that even were the government's critiques "correct, which they are not, (they) would alter Canada's score by only a couple of points."

Karanicolas, the centre's legal officer, said the group is unlikely to change its methodology in light of the federal critique.

Treasury Board has several projects underway that it says will help modernize the access-to-information regime, which relies on an act little changed since 1983, well before the digital age.

This spring, it is launching a six-to-12-month pilot project with three departments to allow the online submission of requests and fees, and online tracking of the progress of the file. Depending on the success of the pilot, it may be expanded government-wide.

Currently, the system is paper-based, with most users having to write $5 cheques for the basic application fee and to send their requests by mail.

And sometime in 2013-2014, summaries of access-to-information requests are to become searchable online in a database that includes all federal departments and agencies.

Legault, whose office investigates complaints from users, plans to table reform recommendations to Parliament this fall after her wide-ranging review of the Act, which has received 42 formal submissions.

She also expects to complete three systemic investigations this year, including one examining interference — political and otherwise — in the processing of access-to-information requests.

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