The National Post
Thursday, July 22, 1999
page A7

Information czar rebukes Liberals for 'crisis of delay'

PMO Central Culprit

Watchdog urges Information Act be strengthened

by Robert Fife

[Anne McLellan]
photo: Rob Galbraith, Calgary Herald
Anne McLellan, the Justice Minister, whose department is responsible for the Information office, was singled out by John Reid, the Information Commissioner, for refusing to uphold the law that requires federal departments and agencies to respond to information requests within 30 days.
OTTAWA -- The Liberal government is promoting a "culture of secrecy" and ignoring systematic lawbreaking by public servants, according to John Reid, Canada's Information Commissioner.

Mr. Reid, a former Liberal MP recently appointed the federal freedom of information czar, said the federal government is creating a "crisis of delay" in answering freedom of information requests from Canadians.

His annual report, presented yesterday, is highly critical of Jean Chretien, the Prime Minister, and Anne McLellan, the Justice Minister.

He singles out Ms. McLellan, whose department is responsible for the Information office, for refusing to uphold the law that requires federal departments and agencies to respond to information requests within 30 days. The department has chosen to adopt the role of "secrecy enforcer", he noted.

"No minister of justice has shown leadership in transforming the culture of secrecy, which pervades the public service", Mr. Reid says in his report that covers the period from April 1, 1998, to March 31, 1999, and assesses how the federal Access to Information Act is working.

"No minister of justice has issued a reminder to officials that the response times are mandatory and that consistent failure to comply constitutes lawbreaking which will not be tolerated. Rather, Justice has fought efforts by the commissioner to enforce response times and Justice has argued before the courts that there should be no legal consequences for government institutions when response deadlines are ignored."

The biggest problem in making government accessible to its citizens is that senior bureaucrats delay requests on the orders of their political masters, Mr. Reid said.

Despite being a friend of Mr. Chretien, the commissioner criticizes the Prime Minister's Office as the central culprit in the cult of secrecy by directing the Privy Council Office (PCO), the central government agency, to delay release of requested documents.

"The prime minister's department set a poor example by insisting from the beginning that the access system be sufficiently slow to enable PCO to continue to manage releases in a way most favourable to the government of the day", he writes.

Mr. Chretien campaigned in the 1993 election on a platform that "open government will be the watchword of the Liberal government".

Mr. Reid contrasts the Chretien approach to freedom of information to that of Bill Clinton, the U.S. president, who issued a directive in 1993 requiring all government departments and agencies to clear up the backlog of requests, answer new requests promptly, and find reasons to disclose information. Two years later, Janet Reno, the U.S. attorney-general, instituted work performance standards for all employees in her department having any involvement in the processing of access to information requests.

Mr. Reid said it is not just ordinary Canadians who are having difficulty obtaining information from the public service, but opposition MPs.

"Members [of Parliament] also are experiencing excessive secrecy due to the knee-jerk tendency of public officials to believe that, if any opposition MP wants a record, it must be damaging somehow to the minister or government", he said. "The notion of ministerial accountability is, too often, taken to mean that the public should not know what public servants do or advise their ministers to do."

Mr. Reid listed Health, Defence, Indian and Northern Affairs, Revenue Canada, and Citizenship and Immigration as departments which have received the most complaints about delays in releasing information. His office received 1,670 complaints against the government and 43% were about delays in processing.

Without providing details, the commissioner said he subpoenaed two deputy ministers and an executive assistant to a cabinet minister as a result of their failure to "remedy serious cases of delay". In each case, the access requests were answered on the date the officials appeared to give evidence.

Mr. Reid also criticized Treasury Board, the lead agency administering the access to information law, for not curbing what he terms chronic delays in answering citizens' queries.

He noted the department has "studiously avoided its responsibilities to monitor the health of the access system . . . and keep under review the state of records management in government".

He ridiculed a recent letter from Marcel Masse, the Treasury Board President, for claiming delays are often a result of "frivolous and vexatious" requests and to growing private sector professionals who make numerous demands.

"The old myth persists that the law is being abused by frivolous and vexatious requesters and by commercial users. In fact, there are, at most, a half-dozen commercial users . . . As for so-called frivolous and vexatious requesters -- there is none in the system", he said.

Mr. Reid urges a public, parliamentary process for amending and strengthening the act, noting that it hasn't been changed since it was passed in 1983.

"It is past due for parliamentarians and Canadians to insist that a strong right to know be part of our collective survival kit for the new millennium", he said.

He also urged Ottawa to shift his office from reporting to Justice to remove the "potential for improper interference" and to safeguard its independence from a department that acts as the legal advisor to all departments against whom access to information claims are lodged.

Copyright © 1999 by The National Post. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.