Let’s face it. Governments don’t like revealing secrets. But we are their employers, so they are obliged to tell us what they are doing.
In a perfect world, the public should have unfettered access to every document produced within the walls of the legislature and other public bodies. But there are reasonable limits. And this, in essence, is what access and privacy laws are all about.
The longest sections of this province’s Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (ATIPPA) spell out exactly what the government doesn’t have to tell you. And as everyone now knows, changes to the act in last year’s Bill 29 broaden that scope immensely.
Meanwhile, in Ottawa — and in the Alberta legislature in Edmonton — privacy commissioners have been more concerned lately not with what’s being revealed, but how.
Alberta’s commissioner, Jill Clayton, wrote a letter to then deputy minister Thomas Lukaszuk in December raising concerns about political interference in the administration of information requests.
Clayton cited a memo that established a protocol whereby political staffers would alert ministers not only of what requests are about to be approved, but who requested them.
The risk of political interference, wrote Clayton, “increases commensurate with a minister’s actual or perceived ability to influence or interfere with the release of information, including delaying a response to a request for access.”
In Ottawa earlier this month, national privacy commissioner Suzanne Legault complained of similar interference by political staffers in the Department of Public Works, dating back to 2009. According to the National Post, she even suggested bringing in the police.
“These staffers inserted themselves in various ways into a process that was designed to be carried out in an objective manner by public servants,” Legault wrote in a report. “Consequently, the rights conferred under the Act were compromised.”
Now, all this may sound unusual to readers in this province, where information requests are made directly to ministers through their staff. Even before Bill 29 came to be, for example, MHAs were told to go through ministers’ offices rather than request information directly from public servants.
The assumption here is that requests go into a departmental black hole, where they are freely scrutinized for political impact. One can only hope they come out the other end with as few redactions as possible.
A committee reviewing Bill 29 is expected to announce public hearings next month. It will provide a good opportunity to focus on just how information requests are handled here, and who’s looking over whose shoulder.