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The Harper Government Is Killing Access To Information

Since its introduction in 1983, both Liberal and Conservative governments — usually supported by federal bureaucrats — have slowly but surely frustrated the workings of Canada’s Access to Information system. But it’s the current Conservative government that finally got the whole access system in what could turn out to be a fatal chokehold.

It has taken time and planning to accomplish, but — as it has demonstrated with other files — the Harper government is prepared to play a long game if it’s confident the end result meets its objectives.

So here’s a step-by-step guide to slowly killing a government information access system:

Step one: Clamp down on communication with the media, corporations and the public. Meanwhile, hire thousands more people whose job titles include the word ‘communications’ — but who are really there to spin what needs spinning.

Don’t answer phones. Refuse to talk directly to the media and forbid public servants from providing background or any information about their activities (scientists are just one of the groups to receive this treatment). Demand that all media questions come by email — and only respond to them that way. At the same time, use parliamentary secretaries rather than ministers to ‘answer’ questions in the House of Commons.

Hold as few news conferences as possible. When you’re forced to face the press in person, limit the number of questions and questioners. That’s been the Harper government’s communications strategy since it came to power in early 2006.

Over time, that approach broadened into a refusal to provide information to Parliament and the Parliamentary Budget Officer. In other cases, the policy actually extended to preventing the collection of information — through actions such as killing the long-form census and cutting funding for Statistics Canada surveys.

Step two: Don’t accept verbal or written requests for documents or information. The standard government response becomes: “If you want something, check the website. If it’s not there, file an Access to Information request.”

The wholly unsurprising result of this policy was a dramatic increase in the number of access requests, straining both human and financial resources  dedicated to dealing with the access system within government departments. Which, in turn, led to long delays in responding.

Step three: Frustrate those access requests in every way possible. Stretch out the time to respond, apply exemptions liberally to exclude vast swaths of material or whole documents — or simply refuse to release the requested documents at all. The operating principle is simple: Government will make information available only if it can’t find a way to prevent its release — and it will work very hard to find a way.

Step four: Tell anyone who protests to file an official complaint with the Information Commissioner. While you’re doing that, make sure the Information Commissioner doesn’t have the resources to keep up with the resulting workload. Better yet, cut its budget.

Charting the annual outcome of complaints to the Information Commissioner shows how things have changed since 2005-06 — the last year of Liberal government. It took about a year for the Harper government’s fingers to start tightening around the Commission’s throat.

The trend is clear and the strategy is working just as planned. The number of complaints filed each year has shot up, as has the number of unsettled ones carried over from previous years and the ones pending at each year’s end. By dragging out every process as long as possible, the Harper government effectively has tied the system in knots — so that the only downward trend line in the chart above is the annual number complaints settled.

From a peak in 2007-08, when the government’s plan began to take effect, the number of complaints opened every year rose and then fell, before starting to rise again more recently. When we look at the annual number of unsettled cases and the decline in cases concluded, the fall in new complaints represents not an unexpected improvement in government responsiveness but a growing sense that complaining is a complete waste of time.

The Information Commissioner’s 2013-14 annual report highlights what’s been happening. In the past year there was a 54 per cent increase in complaints about delays in releasing documents, fees charged and requests for time extensions. Complaints about improper use of the ‘confidential advice to Cabinet’ excuse to keep documents secret grew by 65 per cent. Complaints about the use of exemptions to excise often massive chunks of documents grew by 17 per cent.

Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault told a House of Commons committee earlier this month that her budget has been cut by 11 per cent while complaints have grown by a third. Her office is caught in the squeeze and the losers are those who have filed complaints about the lack of access. The system isn’t working because it’s been primed to fail.

The response from Conservative MPs Erin O’Toole and Joan Crockett (a former journalist)  was both simple and simplistic. If the Information Commissioner needs more money, they said, the answer is to raise fees — say, to $25 for citizens and $200 for journalists and corporations for each request.

An access request costs $5 right now. Given the costs associated with administering that fee, it would be cheaper simply to not charge it at all. MPs know, of course, that the fees don’t go to the Information Commissioner anyway; they go to general federal government revenue. But it’s the thought that counts, I suppose.

Summing up, here’s how you kill a government information access system. First, create the problem by constraining the ability of those paid to make the system work to actually respond to requests. Next, offer to ‘fix’ the problem by massively increasing user fees for corporations and journalists. After all, they’re the ones who can be expected to use the information to critique government policies and decisions.

Gradually tighten the squeeze, and the system slowly chokes — or the people wanting to know what the government is up to eventually give up and go away. Either way, you get a convenient rationale for killing the access process entirely. You simply argue that it’s become far too expensive.

See? Not difficult at all. It just took a bit of time.

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