The principles of transparency and accountability dictate that, whether it is convenient for them or not, governments must operate in glass houses. That is the price of democracy. The converse – secrecy – is the terrible footprint of totalitarian regimes. Secrecy is a prescription for unbridled abuse of the resources of a nation by individuals and groups who achieve and maintain power by brute force.
There will be little argument on this point in a democracy like Canada’s. All stakeholders – in government, in the media, in the private sector, and the general public – instinctively endorse the transparency principle. But how far must this be taken? What information must legitimately be withheld from the public, and what would be the criteria that establish the legitimacy of secrecy?
In most cases, we don’t have to answer this question from scratch. Over the past two and a half decades, Canada’s lawmakers have taken pains to address these issues. Today, every province and territory, as well as the federal government, is subject to laws that dictate the circumstances under which information must be disclosed to the public when it is requested. These laws are known as Freedom of Information or Access to Information laws. Some of these laws may be outdated and require serious overhaul. Others are good laws that need tougher enforcement and policing. The fact is, the laws are on the books and they underwrite what the Supreme Court of Canada has recognised as a “quasi-constitutional right” of access to information.
But what is the proper use of these laws? Do these laws prescribe a bureaucratic process for routine requests for information? Or should they be applied sparingly, as a last recourse, when information that can and should legitimately be disclosed is withheld?
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