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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Governments and access to information

Governments must balance the rights of business to keep certain proprietary information secret with the public’s right to know how public money is spent.
Governments must balance the right to keep certain information secret with the public’s right to know. — Contributed

The tide goes in, the tide goes out.

It’s absolutely regular.

Welcome to the latest review of the province’s access to information legislation. It’s supposed to happen every five years, and there’s low water, and then high water, in how that legislation is viewed by governments with fair regularity.

The tide comes in and legislative change grants easier access and, after five years of experiencing a more open set of rules, a whole bunch of people inside government push for more restrictions on access to make things simpler or cheaper or just easier for them.

In that round of review, the “tighteners” are the most prominent voices heard, and changes come. (By and large, people who are satisfied with the act as it stands say little, leaving the field open for the unsatisfied to weigh in, whichever side they’re on.)

If you can’t get caught stealing a cookie, you might lean a little more towards getting an illicit snack.

Usually, five years after that, the tide of voices is decrying the new restrictions, and the next review of the process opens the doors back up again.

After the disaster of Bill 29, which was such a slam-dunk for shutting off access to government information that the next review undid much of it, we’ve once again, sadly, come back to the time of the tighteners.

We’re in a “limiting access” phase and, chances are, after all the briefs to the current reviewer are counted and parsed, the predominant weight will seem to be on getting at least some new limits on what’s supposed to be a right of access to information, with only specific and limited exemptions.

That right, of course, is something often honoured in the breach. The thing about making the fences known as access rules is that they can just as easily fence things out as fence them in. It’s always a little funny to get a letter telling you “Access to information legislation means you can have no access to this information.” You take your comedy where you can find it.

That’s not the only regular tide, though. New governments, fresh from the frustration of opposition and being denied access to information, tend to support loosening the information strings, all the while boasting about being open and accessible.

A few years down the road, though, stung by getting caught not quite telling the truth or by, shall we say, leaving out important bits, they either tighten the rules up again or just zip their lips and sit on their hands while bureaucrats put forward proposed technical changes that also make things easier for the politicos.

“No, Mr. Speaker, we didn’t try to limit access, we simply accepted the recommendations put forward by our bureaucrats…”

Bureaucrats don’t need or want the extra work of answering the public, especially not answering the public on a tight time frame. It is, sorry to say, an add-on to an already busy workday.

That natural disinclination suits politicians as well, because they can then disavow any role in getting the results they’re happy with anyway.

Are there legitimate reasons for governments to withhold information? Of course there are. Is there always a chance that a cabinet minister or a government official will take advantage of an access to information exemption to hold back something embarrassing or unethical?

Yes. If you can’t get caught stealing a cookie, you might lean a little more towards getting an illicit snack.

And right now, with the age of the current Liberal government, we’re at the point where the tide supporting more liberal access to information generally slips away, leaving the good old sands of self-interest clearly on display.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at [email protected] — Twitter: @wangersky.


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