Op-Ed: Where is Access to Information in this Election?

With the federal election just weeks away, the topic of access to information is more important than ever. Last month, 22 organizations from across Canada – including Newspapers Canada – wrote to the leaders of the main political parties asking them to make an election promise to Canadians to amend our broken Access to Information Act.

Toby Mendel, executive director for the Centre for Law and Democracy, has written a powerful Op-Ed piece on the state of access to information in Canada. Newspapers Canada members are invited to view and publish this piece in their own publications in order to inform readers about this important election issue.

Op-Ed: Where is Access to Information in this Election? (Word Document)

Canada in 59th Place and Slipping: Where is Access to Information in this Election?

As the Canadian election approaches, it is worth reflecting on why access to information has not been a more prominent issue. All of the parties are campaigning on promises of accountability, addressing corruption and being responsive to the people. Access to information, a key underpinning of democracy and good governance, is essential to all of these things. As Louis Brandeis, the eminent US jurist, once noted: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” And yet, although observer after observer has noted fundamental problems with our national access to information system, this has hardly surfaced as an electoral issue.

One of those observers is the organisation I run, the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), a Halifax based human rights NGO which works internationally on access to information issues. As part of that work, CLD developed the Right To Information (RTI) Rating, a methodology for measuring the strength of access to information laws. We apply the RTI Rating around the world to support the development of better access laws and it is recognised globally and widely used, among others, by the World Bank and UNESCO.

We have assessed all 102 countries with RTI laws globally. Canada’s Access to Information Act ranks a very poor 59th place globally, behind Rwanda and Mongolia, far behind leading countries such as India, Slovenia, Mexico and Liberia, and behind like-minded countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Furthermore, Canada is down from 51st place just three years ago and continues to fall as other countries improve their laws while our 30-year old Act continues to stagnate.

CLD is far from alone in its assessment of Canada’s performance. In her 2015 report, Striking the Right Balance for Transparency, the Information Commissioner of Canada had strong words to say about the access to information system: “[M]y predecessors and I have documented multiple challenges and deficiencies with the [Access to Information Act]. The Act is applied to encourage a culture of delay. The Act is applied to deny disclosure. It acts as a shield against transparency. The interests of the government trump the interests of the public.”

On 14 September 2015, 22 organisations from across Canada wrote to the leaders of the main political parties asking them to make an election promise to Canadians to amend our broken Access to Information Act. We also asked them to commit to four specific reforms: expand the Act to cover all public bodies, limit the scope of the exceptions, give the Information Commissioner stronger oversight powers, and require officials to document their decisions.

We felt we were giving parties a great opportunity to bolster their democratic credentials and win votes across the country. We did not exactly promise, but it was implicit in our letter that we would publicise any positive commitments widely. To our surprise, we are still waiting for a single proper response (we have received a couple of tweets).

Until recently, national policy makers could hide behind the fact that other Canadian jurisdictions do not fare much better, although the federal law is at the very bottom of the pack, along with Alberta and New Brunswick. On 1 June 2015, however, a new access to information law came into force in Newfoundland which stands head and shoulders above other Canadian laws and largely reflects the key promises we are asking parties to make in this election. It also ranks 15th place globally, a little bit closer to where a country like Canada should be.

In 1983, when Canada first adopted its Access to Information Act, it was a global leader, and among the first ten countries to adopt such a law. In the more than 30 years that have passed since then, however, no major reforms to the Act have been adopted while countries around the world continue to leapfrog ahead of us. Our national Act is badly in need of reform. Newfoundland has shown No, the way and it is high time for Canada to follow. Which party is going to show the leadership we so badly need on this issue?