Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Canada: "developing country" on access to information (AP)

Editorial, Globe and Mail, November 20, 2011
Canada's access-to-information laws are not working, in spite of the country's avowed commitment to open government.

In an Associated Press study, researchers filed access-to-information requests for government documents on terrorism and convictions in 105 countries. Canada asked for a 200-day extension, and then only gave a partial response. The U.S. stalled for 10 months before releasing two spreadsheets and one piece of paper with all names blanked out.
In new democracies and developing countries, meanwhile, access-to-information laws work as tools for transparency and citizen engagement. India replied in full and on time, while Turkey provided answers within 10 days. Mexico's law is cited as a “model;” it makes all responses public and allows anonymous requests.
Today, Canadians are made to file access to information requests to discover what a government ministry has already released.
There should be no political interference with access to information requests. Documents need to be produced in a timely fashion, and not redacted without cause. If Canadian officials are unable to do this themselves, they should send delegations to India, Mexico and Turkey, and study how right-to-know laws work there.
There are some issues on which a complacent, majority government in a self-described "stable" economy can become intransigent. Access to information may be one of those issues.
How many of the 33-plus million Canadians either know or care about the responses to the Associated Press experiment? However, the results are disappointing.
Access to information, even when the House of Commons is sitting and the Opposition are asking the kind of questions to which previous governments felt obliged to answer, this government remains stubbornly evasive, even approaching what ordinary people would call "cover-up".
For example, the $50 million allotted for border security was blatantly spent on perks to the Parry Sound Muskoka riding of Tony Clement, just prior to the G20 meeting in Huntsville, without a paper trail, without a full accounting to the commons or the Canadian people, and without a blink of embarrassment on the part of the government.
The full cost analysis for the 65 F-35 Fighter Jets Canada is supposed to be buying has never been made public.
The explanation of the need for more prisons and longer sentences for some crimes, when crime rates are falling significantly, is neither available nor offered, in response to the multitude of scholars and legal practitioners who bring cogent arguments against the moves forward.
The job creation scheme of 2008-9 which cost Canadians $47 billion has no idea how many jobs were created, by the Auditor General's report of yesterday. There simply was no accounting for the singular purpose of the project.
The government's silence continues on why there is no environmental protection policy or initiative, when there are many countries already moving significantly toward carbon reductions.
Canada merits "developing country" status on so many fronts that one has to wonder if, in fact, the capacity of this government to even entertain the minimal conventions of a healthy democracy for openness and accountability is zero.
Promising to balance the budget by 2014 has now become another mirage, moved to somewhere "beyond the rainbow" of 2015.
And during the campaign, the leader of the Conservatives would take only 5 questions in any press encounter, answer each of those minimally, and walk away to a waiting car, bus, train or plane, without batting an eye about the legitimate protest.
Keeping the people in the dark, while refusing even to countenance minimal factual openness....these are the tactics of third world dictators, whose citizens have little or no access to public media organs to bring them the facts. In Canada, however, we are proud of our "fourth estate" but even it cannot bring the story out if the government stone-walls their efforts.
And Canadians remain complacent, snoozing through the first snow of the year, wondering if the new snow tires will prove up to the task of preventing slippage on the roads, while government obfuscation, stubborn and arrogant silences and deflections continue to be the order of the day.

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