Monday, June 22, 2009

Information Commissioner resigns in context of information clampdown

(Updated (9:10 p.m.) below.)

Information Commissioner Robert Marleau has "abruptly" resigned today, reports seeming to stress the personal nature of the exit:
Information Commissioner Robert Marleau abruptly resigned Monday for "entirely personal and private" reasons, raising doubts about the pace and direction of reforms to Canada's access to information laws that he was spearheading.
There's lots of context to look at surrounding this departure, however. So, in light of this "abrupt" departure, it's worth a look at his recent statements for context, from the Toronto Star just yesterday and in his annual report in the spring (below). Further, there was yesterday's disclosure that the costs of the Afghan war will no longer be made public to the Canadian people, an incredible development that, it's not a stretch to say, would have greatly troubled the Information Commissioner.

First, in the Star yesterday, Marleau's comments indicate an officer of parliament speaking quite candidly about Canada's lack of commitment to access to information. And later in the report, there are his observations on how Canadians took to Conservative portrayals of the coalition as a "coup," observations which an independent officer of parliament should be free to make, yet may have rankled some (one guess). We have to take the Commissioner at his word that his resignation was personal, albeit occurring less than half way into his tenure as Information Commissioner.

A reminder then of what are now his parting comments that can be factored into his departure:
"We were amongst the leaders in the world," says Robert Marleau, the federal information commissioner.

But the leader has become the laggard after 26 years of "static decline," Marleau says.

"Since then it's been the same song and dance, no effort by any government to have this legislation or these processes keep pace with time, change and technology," he said in an interview.
Marleau complains Canadians know too little about the institutions that govern them.

He points to last fall's parliamentary showdown as proof when the notion of the Liberal-NDP coalition was dismissed as "unconstitutional."

The coalition may have been politically unpalatable. But it was perfectly legal under Canada's parliamentary system.

And yet complaints about the coalition as a "coup" found a ready audience among Canadians, something Marleau finds worrisome.

"We do not do a good job in Canada about teaching and learning about our basic institutions."
Those comments are clearly directed toward a problem pointed out by many in the past number of months, a need for better education about our institutions. Fostering better access to information is part of that.

A little further back, in the spring, in an overview to his annual report, the Commissioner made specific pleas for political leadership to change the culture of access to information which is becoming increasingly bogged down under the Conservative government. It reads almost as if he knew his tenure was up:
In March 2009, I presented a series of legislative recommendations to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. These recommendations are meant as an initial effort to meet, without delay, the urgent challenges of modernizing the Act and strengthening the compliance model.

To move forward, strong, concerted leadership is required, now more than ever, from all quarters and all levels. Parliamentarians remain critical players, as they continue to press the government for legislative reform. The President of the Treasury Board, as the designated minister under the Act, must provide the political leadership to change a transparency adverse culture.

The Treasury Board Secretariat—as the organization responsible for ensuring that federal institutions fulfill their responsibilities under the Act—needs to provide institutional leadership guidance with clear performance objectives, explicit directives and adequate financial support and resources.

Within institutions, executive leadership is crucial to how well institutions fulfill their obligations under the Act. All ministers, deputy ministers and heads of agencies throughout the system must commit to the required cultural change. Through appropriate delegation of authority, access to information directors must be empowered to act in the true spirit of the legislation.

A rejuvenated, reorganized and better funded Office of the Information Commissioner also stands ready to fulfill the vision the Honourable Francis Fox set out in the parliamentary debates leading up to the adoption of the Access to Information Act. During the second reading debate in the House of Commons in 1981, he said: “I expect the office of the information commissioner to become over time more than an information ombudsman, more than an access advocate. I expect it to be the heart of the system.” This can only fully happen with legislative reform.

In closing, I wish to acknowledge the professionalism and dedication my staff has demonstrated through a period of radical change and scarcity. I also want to pay tribute to the memory of former Information Commissioner Dr. John Grace whose impassioned pleas for reform, 15 years ago, still resonate today. Dr. Grace set the bar high in the defence of the citizen’s right to know. Unfortunately, successive governments have chosen to ignore his recommendations and those of the commissioners who followed him. How much longer will Parliament stand by and tolerate this pervasive neglect and the attrition of a fundamental democratic right?(emphasis added)
Within days of the summer break, we've seen the Conservative government decide that the costs of the Afghanistan war are not for the public to know. Immediately following that revelation, the "abrupt" resignation of the Information Commissioner. Those are the facts.

Best of luck to Mr. Marleau and best of luck to his successor, Suzanne Legault who inherits a position that is not exactly valued by this present government.

Update (9:10 p.m.): A bit more fallout on that decision by the Harper government to prevent the Canadian public from knowing the cost of the Afghanistan war, looks like there was a bit of "it wasn't me-itis" going on in Ottawa today. Global news reported earlier tonight that Defence Minister Peter MacKay stated it was not his decision to deny the public this information. Canadian military not commenting either.