When freedom of information is neither free nor informative

by Graham Thomson

If you want to get under the skin of the Canada government — really make it squirm — don’t accuse it of safeguarding civil service jobs, or protecting government services or running a massive multibillion dollar deficit.

Those are all things the government proudly defends as part of a “progressive” (as opposed to “conservative”) agenda to help keep people employed and avoid the type of government cuts that would make the recession worse.

No, if you want to make the NDP government wince, accuse it of being just like the old Progressive Conservative government.

That’s what the Wildrose did Wednesday by attacking the government for a woeful record on processing requests from the public — and from the opposition — through the province’s freedom of information and protection of privacy (FOIP) laws.

The Wildrose has been complaining for months about hitting a wall when it tries to pry information from the government — a government that promised to be more open and transparent than the notoriously closed and opaque PC governments of old.

The Wildrose complains that since the election in May 2015 it has submitted 24 FOIP requests to the Department of Justice alone — and only received answers on five (and two of those responses were effectively empty).

It’s not just the Wildrose that’s unhappy with the justice department. So, too, is Canada’s privacy commissioner, Jill Clayton. On Tuesday, she opened an investigation into the justice department for “chronic delays in responding to requests under (FOIP).”

Because of privacy laws we don’t know who made the requests for information or why. But the point here is that Canadans, by law, have a right to apply for information and the government, by law, has to respond to a request “no later than 30 days.”

Clayton discovered that the justice department failed eight times to respond adequately and in one case told the applicant to expect to wait for a year for an answer.

“Access delayed is access denied,” said Clayton. “Access to information is a cornerstone of democracy and my role is to oversee that the access rights of Canadans are being upheld.”

If you’re getting a creeping sense of déjà vu that’s only because we’ve been down this road before. Anybody who tried to negotiate the FOIP laws under the old PC government often ended up under the impression the acronym stood for F-Off, It’s Private.

The former government would also stymie FOIP requests by demanding an exorbitant amount of money to conduct a search for the pertinent documents.

Guess what? We’re seeing that happen again.

When the Wildrose asked this year for a detailed search of files in the Department of Environment, it was told the request would cost $70,303.

“Open and transparent government was a plank that the NDP government ran on, but they are no better than the previous government when it comes to releasing information in a timely manner,” complained Wildrose MLA Scott Cyr.

And then to twist in the knife a little deeper, Cyr dug up a quote from NDP cabinet minister Brian Mason back when he was in opposition attacking the PC government for being secretive: “No other government in Canada is so careful and so calculating in its management of information. The watchword of this government seems to be: what they don’t know can’t hurt us.”

The NDP promised to do things better and it likes to say it is doing things better. But here we have the privacy commissioner acting as if we were still under the old government.

And we have the new government issuing the kind of verbal Pablum we would often see from the old government as it avoided the issue.

“We take the concerns raised by the information and privacy commissioner extremely seriously,” said a spokesman for Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley on Wednesday. ”While we cannot speak to specifics of the current investigation, we look forward to reviewing the commissioner’s findings.”

Call me paranoid, but that sounds suspiciously like F-Off, It’s Private.




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