Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Harper government's Kremlin on the Rideau streak reemerges

David Akin with the latest obscenity from the Harper government, DFAIT access to information policies that have had the effect of preventing the release of Foreign Affairs records: "Foreign Affairs violating disclosure laws: experts." Foreign Affairs, alone among federal departments, is charging preparation fees up front, prior to release of records. This has had a predictable effect which undermines the very notion of access to information:
In January 2008, department bureaucrats, faced with a growing backlog of requests for information, decided that the best way to clear that backlog was to "more fully administer" fees it believes it can charge under Access to Information laws, according to documents obtained by Canwest News Service.
Got that? They decided to clear the backlog by essentially putting up financial roadblocks to future requests. Bingo:
Within six months of implementing a policy of insisting those making requests pay what could amount to hundreds of dollars in "preparation fees" for what were in some cases routine government records, an interdepartmental memo says that 161,996 pages of records the department was getting ready to release did not have to be placed on the public record because the requests for information were abandoned because the preparation fees were too high.
The Information Commissioner is investigating complaints that have been made.

Criticism is being levelled by access to information experts:
"This is totally against the essence, the very spirit of the law itself," said Michel Drapeau, a lawyer and retired colonel who worked on Access to Information files during his career with the Department of National Defence. Drapeau is the co-author of a textbook on Canadian Access to Information laws.
"They're doing this to discourage access to records," Drapeau said. "It's wrong. It's fundamentally wrong because it goes against the spirit of the act itself."
Yes, against the spirit but the problem is the permission that they have to charge such fees under section 11(2) of the Access to Information Act. It looks like DFAIT is abusing that section, essentially charging people up front to pay for the censoring/blacking out of information that they're requesting. They're clearly applying a very liberal definition to the word "prepare." And, as Akin notes, they're even "...insisting "preparation fees" be paid for routine computerized records before it will release censored versions of those records." Routine computerized records shouldn't require major fees, but under the Harper Conservatives they do. They need to pay people with big fat black Sharpies to sit and black it all out. That takes time and is clearly a huge new growth area in DFAIT.

The fact that these fees are undermining the very access the act is meant to foster should be dealt with appropriately by the Information Commissioner according to its powers to redress such issues. In the meantime, what's happening here is that the onus is being placed on the applicant to fight for information through the various roadblocks. Fees up front and then a complaint process being launched, which can take a while. Meanwhile the value of the information subsides, time's passing. Journalists, researchers, etc. can't get information or when they finally do, it's less impactful. Mission accomplished.

The stellar Harper government record on transparency just continues to impress to no end.