This week has been a busy week in terms of security, intelligence and Access to Information (ATI). If I didn’t know better it would almost seem as if the government is trying to relive the 1980-1984 era when CSIS was created and so was the ATI Act. Two bills have been put forth by the government this week, bill C-58 and C-59. C-58 deals with ATI reform and C-59 national security measures meant to deal with the C-51 controversy during the Harper years. In this post I will deal with C-58 because bill C-59 is rather lengthy and deserves a close read before posting.
So what’s new with C-58? Should we break out the champagne? Did petition e-1090 have an effect? While I would like to believe the recent scandals about secret archives and such did have an effect only the government can confirm that. After all this law wasn’t supposed to be amended until 2018, but low and behold amendments are now being brought forth. So maybe the pressure did have an effect but what the government has proposed with this bill shouldn’t be lauded just yet.
Arguably the most significant change is allowing the Information Commissioner the power to order documents released. While this was something many advocated for, the government can contest that release, and dispute it in court, which isn’t entirely dissimilar from what we currently have now. The Commissioner can go to court on a point of law. The problem now, and likely to come, is how much funding and resources the office would have to fight government attempts at withholding documents. Without a properly funded office, not much is likely to change, though it remains to be seen how often the government would also want to waste taxpayer dollars fighting taxpayers on releasing documents they are, more often than not, entitled to see.
Aside from that change the amendments don’t address section 69 of the ATI. This section of the Act enables the PM, cabinet and the PMO to escape the ATI Act. Reforming this part of the ATI was a campaign promise (there goes that one!). Other additions are actually more troubling in terms of providing Canadians with access to documents. The new amendments give the government and the Commissioner the power to refuse a request (wasn’t this supposed to be an Act about providing access?) on the grounds a request can be considered “vexatious.” How will institutions decide what requests are considered “vexatious,” or rather, annoying? The amendments also appear to reintroduce costs for processing and there are more requirements for being specific for information in requests. Being specific is fine, but what if you have no idea what an institution has? The ATI to be effective relies on transparency. These amendments appear to be aimed, if I didn’t know better, at reducing government costs and making life easier for those processing requests. I agree that the workload on those handling requests needs to change but not like this. It should change by alleviating ATIP staff from the burden of having to deal with the mountains of documents they have to manage (I don’t believe that being an archivist was ever in their job description) and sort through because of a broken archival transfer system and governments overly concerned about security exempted files from history. There is no reason workers should bear the responsibility for all this. Rather than making things more costly for a requester, and give institutions more power to tell people to go away, sort out the big messes and backlogs behind the scenes. So maybe the wrong lessons were learned from the “secret archive” stories. I’m hoping to see more positive changes, but for the time being, the government seems more intent on preserving its hold on the broom closet real estate market, and the locks to guard it, rather than cleaning it up.