The squeeze on access to government information

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OTTAWA -- When a promised interview with a senior official with a federal government agency was cancelled this week, it kind of felt like I was on the receiving end of that famous New Yorker cartoon.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/12/2014 (2801 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — When a promised interview with a senior official with a federal government agency was cancelled this week, it kind of felt like I was on the receiving end of that famous New Yorker cartoon.

“No, Thursday’s out,” reads the line delivered by an executive on the phone. “How about never — is never good for you?”

There was, of course, an excuse that the official was called away to other business. Apparently business that will forever keep him from answering questions about a new program.

But it’s more likely the political arm of government got wind of the interview and put a stop to it.

Because while the government talks a good game about openness and transparency, secrecy is always the order of the day.

It could soon get a lot worse with the government using some backbench MPs to float the idea of raising the fee to make an access-to-information request of the government by as much as $195 per request.

At a committee meeting Dec. 4, information commissioner Suzanne Legault warned MPs that her office is broke, and without more money she will get further and further behind investigating disputes over access-to-information requests.

Legault’s office budget has been cut 11 per cent by the federal government. In the last year, the number of complaints from people who can’t access information has jumped 30 per cent.

You do the math.

Less money and more complaints means a bigger backlog, longer waits and ultimately, the government wins its fight to keep information from the public for as long as it can hold out.

Conservative MP Erin O’Toole thinks the answer is to raise fees for those requesting information. He proposed at committee that people requesting their own information should get to do so for free, but the general public asking for other information should pay a fee of between $25 and $30. The media and businesses should have to pay $200, O’Toole said.

Currently, the fee is $5.

There could be a legitimate argument that someone requesting information from the government should shoulder some of the cost. The government says the average cost to respond to an Access to Information and Privacy request is $1,300 and that $5 fee has not changed since 1983.

But it also suggests on what side of the information argument the government lies.

First, if the government was just more forthright with information to begin with, people wouldn’t have to file ATIP requests. It is not a coincidence that in the past six years the number of ATIP requests filed jumped from 34,000 to more than 55,000. People are increasingly turning to ATIP to get information that used to be available by picking up the phone and asking for it.

But the move also says the government believes the information belongs to whomever is in power, and if anyone else wants that information, they should have to pay for it.

In reality, there are really only three reasons why a government wouldn’t want you to have information. One is for national security reasons, one is for proprietary reasons, and the third is for political reasons.

And this government has turned the third reason into an art form. It has hired an ever-growing army of communications specialists, which one might think would mean information is easier to get. One would be wrong.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation last summer reported there are 3,325 spin doctors working for the Harper government in core departments, not including Crown corporations, the RCMP, military or commissions. It’s an increase of 162 people from when the Harper government took office in 2006, costing taxpayers $48 million more in compensation.

Yet getting even basic information is time-consuming and sometimes fruitless. Last month the Free Press was told it would take at least 24 hours just to find out if the two National Research Council buildings in downtown Winnipeg were for sale.

The immediate impact of raising the cost of ATIP requests to $200 for more than half the people making those requests (businesses account for 39 per cent of ATIP requests, the media for 15 per cent), will be a chill on making those requests in the first place.

When more and more often an ATIP request is the only way to get real information from the government — information that isn’t sanitized to talking points and devoid of anything that might shed light on what the government is doing — any effort to cut the number of those requests smacks of a government attempt at secrecy.

Mia Rabson is the Free Press parliamentary bureau chief in Ottawa.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

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