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Liberals open the taps

Information is starting to flow in Ottawa again

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/2/2016 (553 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — The taps may not be open to their fullest extent yet, but 100 days after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office, the culture of secrecy that had enveloped Ottawa has dissipated.

It started showing up slowly, not long after the new government was sworn in Nov. 4.

Justin Trudeau, with wife Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, celebrates his victory last October. He just marked his first 100 days in power.

Justin Trudeau, with wife Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, celebrates his victory last October. He just marked his first 100 days in power.

A report previously denied under the Access to Information Act showed up, unprompted in my mailbox.

Then there was an access co-ordinator calling, even on off-hours, to try to shepherd a new request through as soon as possible.

Then there was an email from Trudeau’s office giving the time and location for a cabinet meeting and giving a time when reporters could stop ministers to ask questions, something that hadn’t been done in almost a decade.

Since Christmas, it’s clear even the bureaucracy got the memo information is once again supposed to flow.

Last week, a somewhat basic request for information about how much money was spent on Manitoba reserves for housing and how many houses that money actually built, was met with an actual answer.

More than $133 million was spent, but as for how many houses were built, the government just didn’t know.

In a surprising twist of events, the government simply admitted it upfront, full stop, with no attempt to shroud that fact in mystery.

It did take four days for the government to provide the answer, but every day the bureaucrat leading the file provided an update on the progress and explanations given about why there was a delay. He even injected wit and sociability, which prompted one Ottawa reporter to remark upon hearing this, "Whoa, information and personality!"

Six months ago, the response to that request, if answered at all, would have been so laden in talking-point gobbledygook it would have rendered the response meaningless.

The culture of secrecy that shrouded the previous government was no secret itself. Paranoid and mistrustful of the media, the Stephen Harper government controlled its messaging to the extreme. To respond to even the most basic of requests, public relations officials had to get high-level approval from the Privy Council Office, the administrative arm of the Prime Minister’s Office.

One former government communications officer told a story years ago about a reporter calling to ask for a copy of a news release that had already been released but which the reporter could not find.

Still, the officer had to get permission from the PCO to send it to the reporter, and it took several hours to complete the request.

That story was perhaps an extreme example, but it was not unique.

There was lip service to transparency, and there were efforts made to put data onto an open government portal, but those were contrasted with a common refusal to answer even basic questions and a general lack of access to ministers or the prime minister himself.

This is not to take away from the hard work communicators in both the bureaucracy and the ministry did, because many of them were just as frustrated as the questioners at the unwillingness to answer questions.

The access-to-information system became overloaded as it increasingly became the only way to get any information at all from the government. And even then, those requests were often denied or extremely delayed. Complaints to the information commissioner increased. Fewer than one in four requests was completed within the 30-day requirement. Some took years to complete.

The directive now is not to delay, distort or discourage, but to answer, to the best of their abilities, the questions posed.

It shows in the actions and responses of everyone from the PMO on down.

There is still much more to do. Trudeau pledged to overhaul the troubled access-to-information system but has thus far only said the government will do a review. This, even though he has at his fingertips the review recently completed by Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault and the recommendations she made. In particular, to give her office more power to compel the government to release information.

Oftentimes a "review" is government-speak for "We’ll get around to fixing this sometime between now and never."

But at the very least, the initial signals coming from the federal government is the information taps are open. Let’s see if it stays that way.

Mia Rabson is the Free Press parliamentary bureau chief.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @mrabson



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Updated on Friday, February 12, 2016 at 6:12 AM CST: Fixes cutline

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