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Trudeau government breaks campaign promise on access-to-information law

The Parliament buildings are seen in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Trudeau government is revamping Canada's decades-old transparency law, but breaking its campaign promise to ensure the Access to Information Act applies to the offices of the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers.

A government bill introduced on Monday proposes a slew of changes to how Canadians can access information under the act, including increased powers for the Information Commissioner. It would also require the prime minister, cabinet ministers, members of Parliament and senators to release some types of documents regularly, a process the government calls pro-active disclosure.

But it would not, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised during the 2015 election campaign, make these offices fully subject to the access-request law, which allows people to ask for information from government institutions.

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Treasury Board president Scott Brison defended the bill on Monday, saying the changes are part of an "open by default" ethos embraced by his government. "Putting that information out there, pro-actively, is better for everybody. It's more open," he said.

Documents that would be made public through pro-active disclosure include briefing packages for new ministers, travel and hospitality expenses and service contracts. The process would also apply to administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts, although there may be restrictions to ensure judicial independence.

The bill would enable the Information Commissioner to order the release of government documents, and require a review of the act one year after it passes, and again every five years.

But missing from the 59-page bill is any mention of the Liberal campaign pledge to ensure that Access to Information applies to the prime minister's and ministers' offices.

Mr. Brison repeatedly told reporters the government is extending the act to ministers' offices – but only through pro-active disclosure. He refused to answer questions about why the offices would not be subject to access requests.

"Canadians should not have to go through a request-based system to get information that can be pro-actively disclosed," he said. "This is unprecedented."

NDP ethics critic Nathan Cullen said the public will still be in the dark about big government decisions under the new law.

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"They broke the big promise, again," Mr. Cullen said, referring to the government's decision in February to walk away from electoral reform.

"They don't want to make the fundamental change they promised."

The bill also includes a provision that would allow the head of a government institution to decline a request if it is for a "large number of records" and would interfere with government operations, or if the application is "vexatious, is made in bad faith or is otherwise an abuse of the right to make a request for access to records." The person who filed the request would be able to complain to the Information Commissioner.

Mr. Brison said the provision was written in response to suggestions from the Information Commissioner, who would judge whether the request was vexatious or frivolous.

"We are affirming the right of Canadians to make broad and deep information requests that are consistent with the spirit of the act," Mr. Brison said.

The Trudeau government has already made mandate letters public, although the bill would enshrine the release in law. Mr. Brison's letter instructs him to work with the Justice Minister to ensure that "the act applies appropriately to the Prime Minister's and Ministers' Offices."

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The Liberal government has already waived all fees for access requests, apart from the $5 filing cost.

The bill also says government institutions that have concerns with an order from the Information Commissioner could seek judicial review by the Federal Court within 30 days. The order-making power would not apply to the pro-active publication measures.

Mr. Brison said the government is also investing in training to make the process more efficient across government departments. The act was last updated in 1983.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Laura Stone is a reporter in The Globe's Ottawa bureau. She joined The Globe in February 2016. Before that, she was an online and TV reporter for Global News in Ottawa. Laura has done stints at the Toronto Star, Postmedia News and the Vancouver Province. More

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