Shutting us out

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Just in case you think the government of this province is alone in developing a distaste for wide-ranging access to information, Canada’s information commissioner has now pointed out that the federal government is going down the very same road.

At a closed-door session with federal bureaucrats — details of which were obtained by the Canadian Press — federal access commissioner Suzanne Legault said the federal system is simply breaking down.

“I am seeing signs of a system in crisis, where departments are unable to fulfil even their most basic obligations under the act,” she said.

Earlier this year, Legault says, the federal Treasury Board issued a wide-ranging directive to access to information officers, telling them, essentially, that documents contained in federal ministers’ offices were out of bounds, and allowing the political staff of those ministers to make the final decision on whether information was relative to a particular request.

Legault also cited cases where federal departments didn’t even bother to review documents before telling requesters that documents were exempt from access legislation.

Giving cabinet ministers the right to simply veto access? Having political staff vet documents for potentially embarrassing revelations? If you think that sounds familiar, you’re right: the provincial government has made changes in access laws that allow the same sorts of blanket exemptions here.

And while it may be depressing, it’s hardly unexpected.

Accountability, for most governments, involves sharing the information they want to share and restricting access to information they find uncomfortable or even threatening.

That attitude, in its most basic form, is understandable. Why, you might ask, make a stick for your own back?

It’s probably trite to even have to say it: oppositions trumpet access to information, and sometimes continue to support it in their first few years in office.

But granting true access to information — true accountability — is both frustrating and painful.

Governments that may already feel besieged end up having to take more lumps and have to actually supply ammunition to those they view as opponents.

Accessibility and transparency are expensive in many ways; the actual system can cost taxpayers, and the results can cost politicians personally. That being said, the value of a government that is willing to both take credit for its successes and admit when it has made mistakes should not be underestimated. That sort of government, at least, believes its citizens deserve the fullest and broadest accounting possible — in other words, it treats citizens as equals, able to rationally examine a government’s performance, rather than simpletons who have to be led by the nose with only the best of good news.

Limiting access to information to serve political ends?

It’s an occupational hazard of having a system where the winners at the polls end up believing that they actually own the government, not just hold it in trust for their citizens.

Organizations: Canadian Press, Treasury Board

Geographic location: Canada

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