Saying ‘the fog is thickening' in Canada, Information Commissioner pounces on U.S. President's decision to have more official documents released to the public
Globe and Mail Update
January 21, 2009
OTTAWA — The Harper government should follow U.S. President Barack Obama's lead in shunning secrecy and releasing more official documents to the public, Canada's Information Commissioner says.
In his first full day in office, Mr. Obama ordered the American government to release more documents under its Freedom of Information Act.
"Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known," Mr. Obama said Wednesday.
The announcement did not go unnoticed in Ottawa, where the Canadian government has moved in the opposite direction. In an interview, Information Commissioner Robert Marleau said he hopes Canadian officials — including Prime Minister Stephen Harper — will exert the same level of leadership.
"I am thrilled to see that Mr. Obama is taking such a forceful position in the context of transparency," Mr. Marleau said. "I'm jealous, yes. Given that the President will meet Mr. Harper in the near future, I hope that they will talk about it and that the President of the United States can be an example for our own political leader."
Mr. Marleau said that unreleased figures show more and more users of the Access to Information Act are hitting a wall in Canada. He added that his ATI report cards, to be released next month, will show a number of departments and agencies are failing in their legal duties.
"The fog is thickening," Mr. Marleau said. "Things are clearly going backwards in the amount of information that is being released, and there is a clear increase in the use of time extensions and exemptions. The numbers should be of concern to Canadian citizens."
In its current form, the act calls on the government to release requested documents within 30 days.
But a number of officials who administer the Access to Information Act regularly complain that the Privy Council Office is playing an increasing role in vetting documents before they are released, causing delays that commonly reach six months and sometimes drag on for more than a year.
In addition, the government relies increasingly on exemptions to censor information on contentious matters, such as the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan.
In the United States, Mr. Obama said he still wants his government to protect national security and personal information, but that the rules should favour those who are seeking information. "The mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does mean you should always use it," he said.
"The Freedom of Information Act is perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent, and of holding it accountable. And I expect members of my administration not simply to live up to the letter but also the spirit of this law."
Mr. Obama said "transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."
That message is similar to the Conservative Party's promise in the 2006 election. However, the Harper government has failed to live up to its promise to "implement the Information Commissioner's recommendations for reform of the Access to Information Act."
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Posted by Fillibluster at 7:48 PM