Canada

Lifting a corner of the blanket

Jane O’Hara November 5 1979
Canada

Lifting a corner of the blanket

Jane O’Hara November 5 1979

Lifting a corner of the blanket

Canada

Jane O’Hara

The last vestiges of Indian summer were fast giving way to winter’s chilly death rattle last week when the Conservatives unveiled their freedom of information legislation in the Commons. And, like the weather, it wasn’t long before the warm glow of Opposition praise for the 32-page bill had turned to icy blasts against the latest Bank of Canada rate which, last Wednesday, rose to 14 per cent (see page 46). Yet, even though the freedom of information bill was somewhat eclipsed by the government’s economic headaches, the fact remains that in five months the Tories produced what the Liberal government did not accomplish during its years in office: legislation to force the government to show some of its decision-making cards. Or, as government House leader Walter Baker said: “The bill will finally enable tax^ payers to find out what their govern| ment is up to and how their money is 2 being spent.” £

Just how much taxpayers will be able to find out, or how many will even take the trouble, remains to be seen. Although the legislation calls for 27 government departments and 107 federal agencies to open their files—and provides access to 23 categories of currently classified documents—exemptions mean the government can keep secret such things as federal-provincial

relations, national defence, economic interests, international relations and law enforcement.

Most documents dealing with scientific, commercial, technical and financial matters will be kept confidential, as will information requested by a third party that could infringe on a person’s privacy. Cabinet discussion papers and decisions will be open to scrutiny, but policy advice from civil servants and cabinet records will be unavailable. As one aide who worked on the legislation admitted: “If you think you’re going to see another Watergate come out of this legislation, forget it. Most people will have to hire lawyers to decipher the information they receive.”

The process of gaining access will likely mean onerous treks through the bureaucracy, depending on departmental efficiency and the good will and competence of the searching official. For $25 any Canadian may apply to the appropriate government department. If the document is denied, the applicant can go to an information commissioner, the first step in a two-tiered review system. The commissioner (at a $69,000 annual salary) can decide to recommend release, but he has no power. That will reside with the courts, which will handle any secondary appeals.

Perhaps the Tories’ most revealing commitment to their oft-stated election promise of “more open government” appears in the bill’s provision to repeal Section 41 (2) of the Federal Court Act, introduced in 1971 by former Liberal justice minister John Turner. The section allows ministers to blanket any material which, in their minds, threatens national security or defence. Comparable to the American “executive privilege” used by former president Richard Nixon during Watergate, the Canadian option was last invoked over a major issue in-1977 when the solicitorgeneral, Francis Fox, used it to prevent Quebec’s Keable inquiry from getting federal files dealing with alleged RCMP wrongdoings. That repeal and the government’s stated intention to revise the Official Secrets Act will, according to Baker, mean: “Instead of everything being marked secret unless decided otherwise, everything will now be public unless declared secret.”

While the Conservatives were thump-

ing themselves on the back, the Liberals laid low. Opposition leader Pierre Trudeau sheepishly left the Commons minutes before the bill was introduced—to avoid the embarrassment of seeing legislation tabled which he had philosophically espoused but never managed to foster. One former Liberal aide maintains that the Liberal cabinet was split on the issue and that a group of Trudeau’s close advisers, including Principal Secretary Jim Coutts and Privy Council chief Michael Pitfield, were opposed. Said the aide: “The government was tired and freedom of information was the type of administrative nightmare they didn’t have the heart to push through.”

According to Ged Baldwin (see box), the Tory MP who has been on the quixotic quest of freedom of information for most of his parliamentary career, there was another reason. “They had 16 years of skeletons in the closet,” said Baldwin, “which is one reason I’m glad the Tories have put this through so fast. They haven’t lost their political virginity yet, but they are eyeing the bedroom.” Even Clark has worried openly, admitting to Maclean's: “I could get burned by this.” But given that the legislation won’t cost much money (estimated at $5 to $10 million annually) and that it keeps at least one election promise, the Tories are likely more than willing to walk through the flames.£