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Government's access to info bill a step backwards, not forward: watchdog

OTTAWA — A government bill intended to increase transparency for Canadians would actually do the opposite, the federal information watchdog said Thursday.
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OTTAWA — A government bill intended to increase transparency for Canadians would actually do the opposite, the federal information watchdog said Thursday.

In a report presented to Parliament, information commissioner Suzanne Legault said the bill tabled in June, which amends the Access to Information Act, would take people's right to know backwards rather than forward.

Legault, an ombudsman for users of the access act, has long advocated strengthening the 34-year-old law that gives people who pay a $5 application fee a right to ask for federal files ranging from expense reports to briefing papers.

The Trudeau government says its proposed access legislation will raise the bar on openness and transparency.

In her first substantive comments on the legislation, Legault said the measures fail to deliver on Liberal election promises. "If passed, it would result in a regression of existing rights."

Under the access act, departments and agencies must answer requests within 30 days or provide a good reason why more time is necessary. Many applicants complain about lengthy delays in processing requests and blacked-out passages — or entire pages — in the records that are eventually released.

In addition, dozens of agencies with federal ties fall outside the act.

The government has not fulfilled its promise to extend the law to the offices of the prime minister, cabinet members, senators, MPs and administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts, Legault said.

Instead, these offices and institutions would be required to regularly release certain types of records, such as hospitality and travel expenses and contract information.

Such a scheme allows government to decide what information Canadians can obtain, rather than letting requesters decide for themselves, Legault said.

The bill also backpedals on a promise to give the information commissioner genuine power to make orders about the release of records, her report said. "It does not take advantage of any of the benefits of a true order-making model."

Legault also criticized provisions that would:

— Impose added obligations on requesters when making a request and create new grounds for institutions to decline to act on applications;

— Reintroduce the possibility of various processing fees that were scrapped last year.

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press



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