Monday, March 29, 2010

Access to Information? Really?

Last week's media reports on the Afghani detainee issue often showed reporters holding heavily redacted paperwork that had been released under the Access to Information Act. Many of these pages appeared to have been very heavily censored and it appeared that most of them would be basically useless to both the public and Parliament if either party were attempting to understand what had happened in Afghanistan and the degree of complicity within the upper echelons of the Harper government.

Many countries around the world have passed legislation that allow their citizens to access government information at minimal cost. This legislation is used by both the media and private citizens to hold governments accountable for their actions and to allow citizens and the media to independently evaluate the government.

In Canada, this legislation came into existence in 1983 under the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau and is called the Access to Information Act. At the same time, the Privacy Act was introduced to prevent anyone from accessing the personal information of an individual that is held by the government, for example, you can access your personal income tax and health records but someone else cannot unless you specifically give them permission.
Most of us have, at one time or another, waived the right to our privacy by signing waivers at doctors' offices so other physicians (i.e. specialists) can access our health records. With these two pieces of legislation, Canadians are protected from both excessive government secrecy and from having our personal privacy breached.

The Access to Information Act mandates what information is released and how quickly the government must respond to requests for information. In Canada, administration of the Act falls under the jurisdiction of the President of the Treasury Board, currently, Stockwell Day who was appointed Minister on January 19th, 2010 by Prime Minister Harper.

This is an example of what is released to the public under the Access to Information Act. This page is part of a spreadsheet that the government used to justify taxing Canadian Income Trusts in October 2006. The information was requested by several individuals in the financial industry to better understand how the Department of Finance justified their claims of "tax leakage" to impose taxes on Income Trusts. Notice that other than the column and row headers, nothing of any use has been released. This is the case for the first 13 pages of the 18 page report that I have seen. The government used the excuse that the redacted material was deemed to be too sensitive for public consumption since it had to be protected for reasons of "National Security". How this particular tax issue can be related to "National Security" is beyond my comprehension, rather, it seems to be a case of secrecy for the sake of secrecy. By releasing minimal useful information, the government thinks that it is protecting itself from detailed public scrutiny.

Our elected officials have long forgotten that they are employed by the people of Canada and that they can be replaced at the next general election. I can understand that secrecy is necessary in selected political areas but today there is entirely too much secrecy at all levels of government. If this example is what passes for "access to information" it would be far cheaper for taxpayers if we went back to complete secrecy.

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