Nicholson defends refusal to upgrade access to information law
Commons committee sought improvements to 26-year-old law
By Corey Larocque
The Niagara Falls Review
Posted 2 hours ago
When Stephen Harper’s Conservatives broke a promise not to tax income trust funds, the House of Commons finance committee asked for government calculations about why it was necessary. When a 17-page report came back with all but the section headings blacked out, it was a “blatant” example of a government withholding information that should be public, says Liberal MP Paul Szabo.
“Everything else was blacked out,” said Szabo, a Liberal MP from Mississauga.
Now, Szabo is critical of Justice Minister Rob Nicholson for refusing to change Canada’s Access to Information Act despite recommendations from a House of Commons committee he leads, the urging of the federal information commissioner and a Conservative election promise in 2006 to overhaul the 26-year-old law that allows Canadians to ask the federal government for information or records it holds.
Nicholson, the federal cabinet minster responsible for Canada’s Access to Information Act, last week turned down a dozen recommendations Szabo’s committee made in June.
“Zero. It was absolutely zero take-up on anything,” Szabo said. “Basically, I read this report as ‘thanks for all your work, but the legislation as it is works just fine and we have a strong piece of legislation, so bye-bye.’”
Nicholson said Canada’s Access to Information law works well enough now, doesn’t need an update and his time is better spent on cracking down on crime.
“I’m satisfied the Act is working well and we have made substantial improvements to it since we became government. At the present time, all my efforts are taken up with getting my drug bill and other (anti-crime) bills through Parliament,” Nicholson said in an interview.
Nicholson said he has 10 bills before Parliament now, including a new bill aimed at getting tough on white-collar crime he introduced Wednesday.
“They are my priority at the present time. They’re very difficult – to get anything through a minority Parliament,” Nicholson said.
The Conservatives changed access rules shortly after they were elected. The Federal Accountability Act, was one of the first laws the Tories introduced in 2006. Coincidentally, Nicholson spearheaded that one, too, when he was minister of democratic renewal.
Nicholson called it “a huge step forward” to open up Crown corporations like CBC and the Canadian Wheat Board.
But Szabo called it “crap” to view the accountability act as an overhaul of the access law. It didn’t change the way the Access to Information Act works. It added a large number of federal agencies that were covered by it.
Szabo’s committee called for substantial changes, such as an ability to prioritize certain requests so important requests are processed faster than routine ones, an ability to take request denials to the Federal Court of Canada and the end to the protecting correspondence between ministers as privileged “cabinet confidences.”
The recommendations Szabo’s committee want are very complex, Nicholson added.
“It wouldn’t be an easy piece of legislation. It would be very complicated to do that,” he said.
Access legislation is a critical tool for journalists, watchdog agencies, academics, politicians and even voters. In a democracy, access to government-held records gives voters what they need to make informed decisions, Szabo said.
Article ID# 2140436
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Posted by Fillibluster at 7:55 PM