The Hamilton Spectator
Saturday, January 25, 1997
page A11

The public's right to know

Access to information laws are a cornerstone of accountability,
but our weak legislation allows nose-thumbing by
bureaucrats and their masters. The laws need teeth.

Bureaucrats wilfully destroyed key records in the tainted-blood tragedy. Should we be surprised? Not at all. The culture in the public service today is one of non-disclosure, fear for one's career, and protection of one's political master. It is groomed by governments to err on the side of shielding information, to tell only the bare minimum, and to thwart the public's right to know.

Should we be angry? Absolutely. What federal Information Commissioner John Grace found this week was vital in our understanding of the relationship between the governing and the governed. Not only was our trust and confidence in public service once again undermined - after all, officials erased tape recordings and discarded documents as the hunt for important information was on - but nothing seems about to happen to fix what's wrong.

What's wrong is clear: The law that gives Canadians access to information is outdated and outflanked by any federal employee who might find public service a nuisance.

John Grace can vent about the problem, but he can only go so far - certainly, not far enough.

The Access to Information Act was proclaimed in 1983, but it is clear as it enters adolescence that it has all the non-conformist qualities of youth. Mainly, it thumbs its nose at authority and isn't listening to the people who pay the bills.

Gaining access to government records is not a simple exercise of academic indulgence or, as is too common, journalistic invasiveness. At its best, disclosure is a cornerstone of public accountability. We find out how well our money was spent and who thought what. This is our right.

The law must establish a proper balance of competing rights of access and privacy, but also a spirit of providing the public with genuine insight. At the moment, the federal law (there are provincial laws in all but Prince Edward Island) has some 600 ways the government can deny the release of records.

Destroying them is not one of the ways, thankfully, but the law is stacked on the side of those who wish to watch their tails.

And what happens when records are shredded or tossed into the fireplace? Nothing. John Grace, in a figurative sense, has no teeth. He has only the fleeting power of moral suasion and public humiliation. He can go to the press. But heads do not roll, nor do records necessarily roll out of government files, when the public service digs in the heels and ignores the law. Recourse to the Federal Court is costly and time-consuming; a government that wishes to discourage quick disclosure can drag the matter to the courts to buy time.

We should be deeply concerned about this, particularly in an age of rapid policy change and re-engineering of governments. More than ever, this is a time to understand. The Access to Information Act and its provincial counterparts serve weakly the public's need to know more than what politicians impart through ribbon-cuttings, scrums, and staged events.

The law needs to come of age so the new wave of electronic records are properly accessible, so many of the ways to exempt records from disclosure are eliminated, and so Grace's office can compel the release of material when the law is supportive. Fix the law. Penalize offenders. Democracy deserves nothing less.

Copyright © 1997 by The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.