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This article was published 12/2/2010 (4268 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA -- The federal government has refused to release briefing books prepared for the minister tasked with making the government more accountable.
Manitoba junior cabinet minister Steven Fletcher was sworn in as the minister of state for democratic reform in October 2008. According to the department's website, his job is to oversee "an ambitious and extensive legislative plan to strengthen accountability in government through democratic reform."
Senate, election and political financing reforms are chief on his agenda.
In February, the Free Press made a request for the briefing books prepared to help Fletcher learn his new portfolio. After a six-month delay, the paper was told it wouldn't be given even a single page.
"It has been determined that the information you requested may not be disclosed," read the letter from the Privy Council Office Aug. 20.
A complaint to the information commissioner was made in September. This week, the Free Press learned because the PCO denied the information as advice to cabinet, even the information commissioner cannot request to see the documents in order to determine if the refusal was appropriate.
All the commissioner's office can do is ask the PCO to change its mind. The PCO said it wouldn't reverse its decision.
Michel Drapeau, a lawyer and expert on access-to-information laws, said briefing books are released through Access to Information and Privacy requests all the time.
"I could see having a line or a paragraph here and there (being withheld) but this is the first time I've heard of it being denied completely," said Drapeau, who co-authored an annotated guide to the federal access-to-information and privacy legislation.
Duff Connacher, founder and co-ordinator of Democracy Watch, was bemused but incredulous about the denial.
"It's deeply ironic and hypocritical to keep the briefing book for the minister of democratic reform a secret," said Connacher. "It just shows the cult and culture of excessive secrecy of this government."
Fletcher would not comment on the situation involving his briefing book. His spokeswoman Thursday directed all questions about the refusal to the PCO. A written statement from a PCO spokeswoman said the "decision had nothing to do with a security classification of the document(s)." She also said the information "cannot be released by PCO" because they are considered a confidence of cabinet.
Manitoba NDP MP Pat Martin, who has introduced a private member's bill to amend access-to-information laws, said Senate reform isn't exactly a matter of national security.
"This government abuses exclusions wildly," said Martin.
The briefing book denial is the latest in a string of stories this week about the Conservative government's handling of access-to-information requests, including a political aide to then-public works minister Christian Paradis interfering in the release of a report government lawyers had deemed should be released in full.
ATIP of the iceberg
What is ATIP?
It stands for Access to Information and Privacy and is the term used to describe laws giving Canadians the right to be given information contained in federal records.
How do I get information from the government under ATIP?
You make a request on a form, and pay a $5 fee. The form is submitted to an access co-ordinator in the department involved. The access co-ordinator will work with you on the request, including informing you of any delays or additional fees. The government is supposed to respond within 30 days but can and often does ask for extensions. (In 2008-09, extensions were required in 43 per cent of applications, including 12.5 per cent where it took more than six months). The government can also seek additional fees for requests that will take unusual amounts of time to address, or for extra costs associated with photocopying materials, for example.
Percentage of ATIP requests where information was released in full:
2008-09: 18 per cent
2004-05: 27.1 per cent
1998-99: 39.8 per cent
-- Source: www.infosource.gc.ca