As I write this, the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs is holding hearings on Bill C-58, which amends the Act.
The legislation is the result of a Liberal campaign promise to improve transparency of government operations, but it is something of a mess. Even as his government passed the bill through the Commons, Scott Brison, the treasury board president, invited the Senate to make several amendments to fix shortcomings that were identified during and after the Commons debate. In her appearance before the committee in October, Canada’s information commissioner Caroline Maynard also urged the Senate to make amendments, without which the current bill would not “represent a marked improvement on the status quo.”
Like other journalistic advocacy groups, the Canadian Committee on World Press Freedom submitted our views to the Senate committee, which supports Ms. Maynard’s call for important changes to improve the bill. Whatever the Senate does with the bill, it is only the beginning of the needed reform.
To put it bluntly, the current Access to Information system is broken. Records are often heavily censored with little justification, as if the first instinct is to redact. It’s safer that way, one supposes.
Delays can stretch into many months, even years. Regularly, stories circulate in the press gallery about responses that come back many years after a request was made, after the sitting government had left office and the issue at the centre of the request had passed.
As we said in our submission, the excessive length of time it often takes in responding to Access to Information requests is particularly troublesome for journalists, who have responsibility to inform the public about current government actions, including policy-making and meetings with special interests.
While the Senate has an opportunity to improve certain aspects of the Access system, it cannot address the more basic problems. Ms. Maynard noted the legislation requires a review of the system one year after it is proclaimed into law.