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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2011

Canada Ranks Dead Last in Transparency

New evidence shows the Harper Conservatives have become increasingly restrictive in allowing release of government-controlled information under access to information legislation — leading to Canada ranking as the least open government in a comparison of parliamentary democracies.

Researchers Robert Hazell and Ben Worthy of University College London reviewed freedom of information laws in New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, the United Kingdom and Canada. “Canada comes last,” say the report authors whose findings were recently published in the journal Government Information Quarterly.

Canada’s Access to Information Act is purportedly designed to make documents readily available to citizens but some requests under FOI are facing excessive censorship and long delays, according to the office of the federal information commissioner. Government statistics released late last year show that full disclosure rates have dropped significantly over the past decade. In 1999–2000 almost half of completed requests resulted in full disclosure of information, compared with less than 16 per cent in 2009–2010. The commissioner’s April 2010 report, entitled Out of Time, graded the performance of 13 out of 24 federal institutions as “below average or worse” against a number of measures, including how quickly they responded to requests and how often they completed requests late.

“There are far too many exemptions and loopholes under the current access regime, and these have only increased further since the Conservatives have come to power,” said Ken Rubin, an access to information expert and public interest researcher who has championed improvements to Canada’s FOI system. “But even without considering the issue of political interference, there are hundreds of ways government departments and agencies can withhold information that should be publicly available.”

Rubin says he’s not surprised the international comparison placed Canada last. “The operation and enforcement of Canada’s Access to Information Act are an embarrassment, but then I would argue that the legislation was never really meant to promote openness of government,” he said.

“What is needed is a second-generation law that would eliminate the many exemptions, mandate the disclosure of records automatically in areas such as health and safety, and the environment, and improve the process substantively with the imposition of fines for delays and obstructions.”

The problem exists not only at the federal level. Service Alberta’s annual reports, for example, show that only 27 per cent of those who filed an information request in 2009 received all or some information from the Alberta government compared to 60 per cent in 1995, the first year the province’s freedom of information law came into effect.