Open government plan silent on updating law
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OTTAWA - The Conservatives' new draft plan on open government makes no mention of reforming the Access to Information Act, despite widespread calls to revise the 32-year-old law.
The draft plan would see the government make information and data — including scientific research, federal contract details and archival records — more readily available by default.
But it proposes no legislative changes to the access law, which allows people who pay $5 to request government records ranging from correspondence and briefing notes to audits and hospitality receipts.
The legislation was passed in 1982 and took effect on Canada Day the following year. It has changed little since and has been repeatedly criticized as a relic of the filing-cabinet era that doesn't even cover key institutions including the House of Commons and Senate.
Reform of the law was suggested during federal online consultations for the federal plan and during meetings in Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa and St. Catharines, Ont.
The federal information watchdog, opposition parties, pro-democracy groups and members of the government's own advisory panel have also pushed for modernization, saying the law allows agencies to withhold too much information.
Last month, information commissioner Suzanne Legault wrote Treasury Board President Tony Clement to say revision of the law is "the one element" that must be included in the federal open government plan.
"Undertaking an in-depth reform of the legislation would clearly demonstrate the government's commitment to the right of access as a central piece of the open government initiative," Legault wrote.
The commissioner plans to table a special report in Parliament in coming months on modernizing the act.
In its letter to Clement, the Canadian Association of Journalists expressed a "strong belief" that the federal openness plan must include a commitment to updating the access law. It pointed to exemptions and exclusions in the law that prevent requesters from obtaining advice to ministers and cabinet documents, to name two examples.
"In effect, they create unassailable secret spaces in Canada's public bodies," the association said.
"While such privacy may be necessary in limited circumstances (such as those involving current and specific national security or law enforcement issues), it is more often inconsistent with the principle of open government, public expectations of how a modern democracy should function and our firm conviction that government documents belong to the public."
The latest federal plan flows from Canada's participation in the Open Government Partnership, a U.S.-led initiative that encourages countries make commitments to be more open and accountable. Canada's draft plan, which builds on pledges made in 2012, includes promises to:
— issue a directive on open government to maximize the release of government data and information of "business value" — mindful of restrictions related to privacy, confidentiality, and security;
— create an open data institute — and common national principles — to support collaboration among the private sector, academia, and government to promote the commercialization of available data on everything from labour statistics to weather patterns;
— improve access to federally funded scientific research;
— establish legislation-based reporting standards for Canadian mining, oil, and gas companies to enhance transparency and accountability in natural resource development;
— create better access to open federal contracting and spending information, and expand the "proactive release" of government information generally, making it easier to find and use;
— provide direction, tools and resources to help federal agencies consult more broadly with citizens and civil society.
The plan's promises on Access to Information are limited to improving administration to speed up the processing of requests and training to help government officials comply with the law.
In her September letter, Legault said it was imperative that the government put the same energy and vision into access to information as it does for open data. "Without a strong access law, the government cannot achieve its stated objectives to foster transparency and accountability."
The government is accepting feedback on the draft plan through noon ET Mon., Oct. 20.
On the web: http://data.gc.ca/eng/canadas-draft-action-plan-open-government-20
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