Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has promised to fix the access to information system, which the federal watchdog has described as broken, if he wins the next election.
"We’ll speed up response times, we’ll release more information, we’ll give the [information] commissioner more power to override the gatekeepers within government and favour transparency over secrecy,” Poilievre said Thursday at a Vancouver news conference after unveiling a proposal for First Nations resource tax reform.
When he was elected in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to transform the 1983-launched Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) law, so that disclosure would be “by default.” His only major reform measure was to eliminate additional fees for searching and copying. He kept the $5 per request application fee.
Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard told a House of Commons committee last June that the system has suffered a steady decline “to the point where it no longer serves its intended purpose.”
Maynard said that 30% of access requests were not answered within the legislated timelines and that there exists a culture of secrecy in government, “in the sense that when staff receive an access to information request, they think about what information to delete and not what information to disclose.”
Last year’s annual Treasury Board report on ATIP, released in December, said the government spent $95.7 million processing requests and deciding what can and cannot be released.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada missed deadlines 79% of the time, followed by Library and Archives Canada (76%), Department of Finance (60%) and RCMP (58%). The agencies with the worst rates for full disclosure were the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (0%), Department of Finance (2%) and Environment and Climate Change (3%).
Even with delays, ATIP can help keep leaders accountable.
Poilievre pointed to recent revelations about Liberal government spending on the pandemic-era customs app and the truth behind the Prime Minister’s Office’s guest list that included a Ukrainian-Canadian veteran who fought with the Nazis in the Second World War.
“We saw he lied about his involvement inviting a Nazi to the president of Ukraine’s visit,” Poilievre said. “We’ve seen the government cover up his spending decisions, we see them try to cover up what they did with the ArriveCan app, $54 million spent, 76% of the contractors did no work whatsoever. Just yesterday they shut down a committee hearing into that very scandal.”
But Poilievre said there are limits to ATIP reform. He does not favour expanding the law to include administration of the House of Commons and Senate.
“I think we need more automatic disclosure form the House of Commons and the Senate rather than ATIP,” Poilievre said. “ATIP is a very bureaucratic system. If you applied ATIP itself to Parliament, what you’ll end up doing is adding a massive new bureaucracy that has the same obstacles.”
Instead, Poilievre proposed more proactive disclosure of expenses and decisions.
In a 2016 review, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics recommended recommended the law be extended to include the Board of Internal Economy, the all-party committee that manages Parliament.
The next federal election is scheduled for no later than Oct. 20, 2025.