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Politics Full review of Access to Information law won’t come until 2018: Liberals

Treasury Board President Scott Brison speaks to a conference on open government in Ottawa on March 31, 2016.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Liberal government says a full review of the outdated Access to Information Act will have to wait another two years, but some short-term fixes could be on the way within months.

A comprehensive examination of the access law, which people use to request federal government files, is slated to begin in 2018, Treasury Board President Scott Brison said Thursday.

Meantime, the government plans to introduce legislation as soon as this year with quick fixes to the law, based on promises the Liberals made during the election campaign and consultations already under way.

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"We're looking for early wins in terms of the first phase of this," Brison told a conference on open government.

The promised changes include giving the information commissioner the power to order release of government records and ensuring the access law applies to the offices of the prime minister, cabinet members and administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.

Groups that have long pushed for reform welcomed the pledge of some swift updates following years of inaction by the previous Conservative government.

"I think that it's really, really a step in the right direction," said Tom Henheffer, executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

"We certainly want change more quickly rather than more slowly, so it doesn't get taken off the agenda. But at the same time, we understand that the government has a very busy legislative agenda."

Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said he hopes the government will be open to broader changes in the short term, not just the ones the Liberals promised in their platform.

"We think that there are a lot of things that can be dealt with immediately."

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Gogolek called for cabinet records — now almost completely off-limits — to be brought under the law, along with a provision requiring officials to document key policy decisions in writing.

The Access to Information Act allows people who pay $5 to ask for everything from expense reports and audits to correspondence and briefing notes. Departments are supposed to answer within 30 days or provide good reasons why they need more time.

However, the access system has been widely criticized as slow, antiquated and riddled with loopholes that allow agencies to withhold information rather than disclose it.

A House of Commons committee recently began a study of the law, which has not been substantially updated since it took effect almost 33 years ago.

In addition, the government began a public consultation on transparency on Thursday. People can go to open.canada.ca to offer their views on what should be in the next federal strategy on open government.

Officials will also hold in-person discussions across the country and the resulting plan is to be released this summer.

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Numerous studies over the years have put forward recommendations for improving the access law, but Brison told reporters the government wants to take time to get it right.

"A two-stage approach makes a lot of sense in terms of demonstrating commitment and early progress and real improvements in the near term, and at the same time pursuing a more thorough consultation in 2018 to consider other changes that may improve the act."

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