Perhaps the best thing to do is to get right down to the nuts and bolts of what access to information is all about.
To quote the existing act, “The purposes of this act are to make public bodies more accountable to the public and to protect personal privacy by giving the public a right of access to records,” subject to “limited exceptions to the right of access.”
The old Freedom of Information Act actually said it more clearly in 1981: “The purpose of this act is to provide a right of access by the public to information in records of departments and to subject that right only to specific and limited exceptions necessary for the operation of the departments and for the protection of personal privacy.”
The cogent parts? Both acts establish first and foremost that citizens have a right of access, and that right is only supposed to be abridged by specific rules required for the operation of government and personal privacy.
Bill 29, which changed access law in this province in many ways, pushed past that definition, bringing in exemptions that made cabinet ministers’ briefing books exempt from release, putting business interests ahead of the public’s right to know, and generally making changes that made it simpler for bureaucrats and politicians to avoid releasing difficult, lengthy and embarrassing material.
The head of a department, for example, can simply claim solicitor-client over a document — any document — and even the province’s information and privacy commissioner is forbidden to so much as look at the document to establish whether or not the department head is telling the truth.
In other words, in the simplest terms possible, the changes actually took what had been a right and turned it into a convenience; government could and would supply information as it wished.
The provincial government would probably argue that, in actual practice, the changes to the act have not fundamentally changed the volume or quality of information that is being released. The government professes to be open and accountable. They may or may not have a point; after all, they are the gatekeepers, and they know what does and doesn’t get through the gate. If they are, it’s by individual choice, and there is no telling when that choice would change.
What is certain is that the access gate is smaller, and has far more discretionary room to remove things from public view than it did before Bill 29. What’s been removed? It’s hard to say — you can’t prove anything by absence of information.
But as we move towards the government’s review of access law, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.
First is that a right to access to government information is, for the government, messy, expensive, annoying and occasionally embarrassing — but you either believe that citizens have that right, or you do not.
Hopefully, the province’s new review of access legislation will return to the starting point of this province’s long history as one of the first provincial jurisdictions to bring in its own access law.
And that starting point is that, first and foremost and subject to only the most limited of exemptions, citizens have a right to government information.
A right. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.
This story has been edited to correct a section that did not properly refer to the provincial information and privacy commissioner.