Access to info and freedom of info continues to be eroded

Today I feature a range of stories about access to (or freedom of) information. In earlier posts, I’ve noted how the federal government’s system has been taking more and more time to process requests, and that in some jurisdictions – like B.C. – the system is so broken that people aren’t using it any more.

In the news lately, there have been a few announcements. In Ontario, Premier McGuinty has announced a rating system for hospitals. This comes after the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act was extended to include hospitals. Before anyone gets up to cheer, however, the government has created a loophole: the Act does not apply to patient care issues. This is, critics argue, the most important information about a hospital.

The fact that the loophole was created in a clause buried in the 2011 Ontario budget reminds me of the secret G20 law expanding police powers and does nothing to give the government any credibility. Nor do emails obtained by the provincial NDP, which seem to show political interference in FOI requests.

In Ottawa, a report that would have been useful in the debate on tough-on-crime laws was conveniently kept from the public eye until after the election.

These and other practices have led the Canadian Association of Journalists to nominate the McGuinty and Harper governments for the 2011 Code of Silence Award. The other nominee is New Brunswick.

Most Canadians pay little attention to this issue, but I wish they would. Knowing how our governments are run is critical to democracy. The fact that bureaucrats and politicians are trying to restrict such access should be alarming as it suggests that their desire to avoid embarrassment trumps the public interest.

Update (May 14. 2011):

The Supreme Court has just decided that federal Access to Information Act does not apply to documents in the Prime Minister’s Office or ministers’ offices. The reasoning is sound as the Act is written. But the law, as the saying goes, is an ass. In this day and age, people should have the right to know what people they pay are doing with their tax money. The only exceptions should be sensitive negotiations and national security information.

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Hospital works on info policy
Whig-Standard (Kingston), April 23, 2011
Summary: Kingston General Hospital and the Ontario Hospital Association are distancing themselves from online legal advice urging hospitals to begin “cleansing” files in advance of new freedom of information laws.

McGuinty considering rating system for hospitals
Ottawa Citizen, May 5, 2011
Summary: The McGuinty government is considering a ranking system that would award Ontario hospitals stars for good performance, while identifying poor performers, the Citizen has learned.

Ontario Liberals helped hospitals hide embarrassing information: critics
The Star (Toronto), May 5, 2011
Summary: Critics say Ontario’s Liberals are getting more secretive, despite their claims of making government more open and transparent. Liberals on the finance committee used their majority Thursday to exempt hospitals from the freedom of information law, an exemption they had been buried deep in the 2011 provincial budget.

Justice Department study missing in faint-hope murder repeal controversy
The Star (Toronto), May 8, 2011
Summary: An internal study by the Justice Department, never made public, praised Canada’s so-called “faint hope” clause for murderers even as the Harper government pressed for — and won — its elimination.

Accès à l’information et liberté d’expression: faible performance d’Harper
La Presse, May 9, 2011
Summary: Le gouvernement de Stephen Harper n’obtient pas la note de passage lorsqu’il est question d’accès à l’information, révèle un nouveau rapport qui presse les Canadiens à être vigilants quant à leur liberté d’expression.

Ontario, New Brunswick and Harper up for top secrecy award
Canadian Business, May 10, 2011
Summary: The province of Ontario, New Brunswick’s liquor control agency and the Harper government are among this year’s nominees for the Canadian Association of Journalists’ annual Code of Silence Award.

Liberals let politics interfere with access to information: provincial NDP
Ottawa Citizen, May 10, 2011
Summary: Ontario’s McGuinty Liberal government, elected in 2003 on a platform of transparency, is defending itself against accusations of interfering with access to information requests.

Update (May 14. 2011):

Top court’s ruling could lead to more secrecy in government: Information czar
Ottawa Citizen, May 13, 2011
Summary: The country’s top court has restricted the ability for Canadians to hold their government to account, Canada’s information czar said in response to a Supreme Court decision handed down Friday on access to the prime minster’s daily agenda.