OTTAWA–Protecting Canadians’ privacy is one reason the government has hit the brakes on promised transparency reforms, Treasury Board President Scott Brison says.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa on Saturday, Brison said reforming Canada’s aging access to information regime remains a priority for the Liberals, despite continued delays.
Brison said the government has run up against “important considerations” in the efforts to broaden the access system to include ministers’ offices, the Prime Minister’s Office and the federal court system. Those considerations include “the neutrality of the public service,” “the independence of the judiciary” and Canadians’ privacy rights, the minister said.
“These are important issues and we need to be prudent as we move forward,” Brison said.
“But again, we take this seriously. We believe (that) government information ultimately belongs to the people in the principle vote by default, but we need to get this right. This is a file that is important, and it’s important that we address what are legitimate concerns, and we will.”
The Star asked Brison’s office on Sunday how Canadians’ privacy rights are an impediment to making government documents available to Canadians. In an emailed response, Brison’s office suggested minister was speaking broadly about the principles that underpin the access system, including censoring information about private citizens.
“We look forward to continuing our work with Canadians, the information commissioner and parliamentarians to improve and strengthen access to information,” wrote Bruce Cheadle, a spokesperson for Brison.
Canada’s access to information (ATIP) system was established in 1982. It allows any Canadian to access internal federal government documents. Citizens, businesses and researchers can use it to figure out how Ottawa makes decisions and to dig up historical records, basically pry loose information the government has kept from public eyes for whatever reason.
But the system has not been updated since it was introduced and experts have warned it has aged badly with decades of successive Liberal and Conservative governments’ neglect.
In the 2015 campaign, the Liberals proposed sweeping reforms to the system, including expanding its application to ministers’ offices, giving an independent watchdog the power to compel departments to release information and making access to government documents “open by default.”
A number of those changes have now been delayed indefinitely. And there are concerns that, like the previous Conservative government before them, the Liberals’ promise to overhaul the system will be overtaken by other priorities as the 2019 election nears.
In an interview with CBC on Saturday, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault said the delays came as a surprise to her. But Legault said she’s committed to a “positive” approach with the government, praising Brison for removing most ATIP fees and for directing departments to treat information as “open by default.”
But Legault also warned that the window for reforms is closing.
“I think that the government is on the record … the prime minister is on the record (in favour or reform),” Legault said.
“So let’s got on with it. Because time is actually running out. … People will judge the government on how they’re implementing their promises.”