Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Government's Access to Info Bill a Step Backwards, Not Forward: Watchdog

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Government's Access to Info Bill a Step Backwards, Not Forward: Watchdog

Article excerpt

Info bill a step backwards, not forward: czar

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OTTAWA - A government bill that is supposed to increase transparency for Canadians would actually do the opposite, the federal information watchdog said Thursday.

In a report presented to Parliament, information commissioner Suzanne Legault said the bill to amend the Access to Information Act would take people's right to know backwards rather than forward.

Legault, an ombudsman for users of the access act, has long advocated strengthening the 34-year-old law that allows people who pay a $5 application fee to ask for federal files ranging from expense reports to briefing papers.

The Trudeau government says its proposed access legislation, introduced in June, will raise the bar on openness and transparency following years of inaction by the previous Conservative government.

But in her first substantive comments on the legislation, Legault said the measures fail to deliver on Liberal election promises. "If passed, it would result in a regression of existing rights."

The bill severely limits the right of access by creating new hurdles for requesters and giving agencies new authorities to refuse to answer requests, Legault says.

"It will make things significantly worse, and this is what's so disheartening," she said in an interview. "There was such an opportunity."

Legault makes 28 recommendations to improve the legislation.

A coalition of leading civil society organizations, including Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy, called Thursday for the government to withdraw the "inadequate" bill and start over.

Conservative and New Democrat MPs have also criticized the legislation for falling short of Liberal promises.

Jean-Luc Ferland, a spokesman for Treasury Board President Scott Brison, defended the bill Thursday as the first real advancement for the law since it took effect in 1983. But he added: "In our discussions with the commissioner, we have come to understand that clearer language may help allay her concerns."

During recent House of Commons debate on the bill, Brison also signalled some flexibility.

"Now more than ever, open government is good government," he said. "We want to work with parliamentarians, independent officers of Parliament and stakeholders to ensure that this first major Access to Information Act reform in three decades reflects that intention."

Under the access act, departments and agencies must answer requests within 30 days or provide a good reason why more time is necessary. …

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