Canada’s Information Commissioner has been highlighting problems with the country’s access to information process. Robert Marleau’s reports have been embarrassing to a government that maintains it’s all about openness and transparency.
Under the circumstances, it seems petty and vindictive to strangle the commission’s budget as it tries to find more systemic problems in the way information is handled. That kind of move does not seem the least bit surprising coming from Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
This is the prime minister, after all, who sacked Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission president Linda Keen last year after she defied him by ordering the shutdown of the Chalk River nuclear reactor – back in the news because safety concerns have shut it down again.
The record is clear. Harper fired environment commissioner Johanne Gelinas; also sacked was Canadian Wheat Board president Adrian Measner, who challenged government plans to change the way the board operates; his actions led to the resignation of information commissioner John Reid; he squabbled with both Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand (his own appointee) and predecessor Jean-Pierre Kingsley; he worked against Commissioner of Official Languages Graham Fraser; Harper locked horns with former ethics commissioner Bernard Shapiro.
While Marleau won’t come out and say that his office is being punished for reports that paint the government in a negative light, the dots are being connected.
Earlier this year, the commission found most of the departments and agencies earned a below-average grade for responding to public requests for information. The most significant finding attests to the fact that the 30-day period intended by Parliament to be the norm in responding to information requests is increasingly becoming the exception. The report shows a trend toward greater use of time extensions and for longer periods of time, a trend which is not matched by a proportional increase in the number of information requests.
“Our analysis has confirmed what Canadians have been hearing and experiencing for a while now, when trying to obtain government-held information,” Marleau said of his March report. “There are major delays, particularly with extensions, with some institutions routinely taking months to respond to information requests. Canadians expect and deserve far greater efficiency and accountability from their government.
“The poor performance shown by institutions is symptomatic of a major information management crisis throughout government. In today’s digital environment, outmoded ‘paper’ practices, inconsistencies, overlapping, and the like, unnecessarily slow down the retrieval process, lead to unsuccessful or repeated searches, and generate huge amounts of pages to review.”
Hardly a ringing endorsement for the government’s stated respect for transparency. It’s easy to see how someone of Harper’s temperament would see Marleau’s findings as fighting words. It’s also easy to see Harper taking punitive action rather than attempting to fix the problems the Information Commission details.
To act on the commission’s recommendations, this government would actually have to be interested in allowing public access to information, not just say so. From everything we’ve learned of Harper, that’s far too much to expect. Secrecy and control have been shown to be part of his mantra.