CANADA

Keeping the secrets secret

MARY JANIGAN March 1 1982
CANADA

Keeping the secrets secret

MARY JANIGAN March 1 1982

Keeping the secrets secret

Even when they spawned freedom of information legislation, the federal Liberals seemed more enchanted with the notion than the practice. They trumpeted the bill as a triumphant landmark during its July, 1980, debut in the House of Commons. Then they promptly shunted it onto a parliamentary treadmill as a clear non-priority. Two months ago, in a sudden burst of concern for provincial sensitivities, Communications Minister Francis Fox abruptly plucked the legislation from committee scrutiny so that he could ponder long-standing provincial complaints. The delay has plunged the bill into a legislative limbo, delighted the opposing provinces and thoroughly rankled the advocates of an open, more accessible government.

The bill was doomed to controversy from its inception, because it represented a painful compromise in the tugof-war between the secrecy-prone bureaucracy and legitimate public-interest groups. The 97-page legislation would permit access to government information with such key exceptions as confidential business information, personal information and information that would imperil national defence, inter-

national affairs, law enforcement investigations or national economic interests. Throughout last year, the government slowly tilted in favor of the public’s right to know. Prodded by opposition MPs, Fox accepted about 50 amendments, including some that opened access to more documents.

But the chorus of opposition protest was swelling. In a 22-page letter last June, Ontario Attorney General Roy McMurtry fretted that the bill did not sufficiently protect provincial law enforcement information that has been shared with Ottawa. The minister was also hotly opposed to provisions that allow the judiciary to review ministerial decisions against the release of national security, defence, law enforcement and cabinet documents. Last November, Saskatchewan Attorney General Roy Romanow told Fox that all the provinces endorse McMurtry’s stand. Since then, only the new Manitoba government has shown some tepid support for the legislation.

That strong provincial bias against the bill buttressed the continuing opposition of some key federal cabinet ministers and senior civil servants. Fox was apparently ordered to suspend commit-

tee hearings, and he obediently attended a series of meetings with attorneys general, and then with their deputies. Two weeks ago, the deputies suggested the compromise of pounding out a uniform bill for all 11 governments. Then they returned home for several weeks of consultation, and Fox is now awaiting their final recommendations. Then cabinet or a cabinet committee must decide whether to proceed with the bill, water it down or kill it and struggle for a uniform document.

The federal delay has clearly heartened the opposing provinces. One Ontario official says that his government is convinced that Fox’s always-lukewarm support for the bill is chilling and that Ottawa is going to drop it. The official also chuckles at the notion that 11 governments will ever manage to agree on a uniform code.

Ontario Provincial Secretary for Justice Norm Sterling insists, however, that provincial opposition is not based on a self-serving desire to evade inquisitive voters. After a fact-finding mission to Washington last October, Sterling concluded that the prime users of the United States freedom of information legislation are criminal elements and business groups nosing about for information on their competitors. And although he advocates mild freedom of information guidelines, he argues that the legislation is largely the priority of special-interest groups that want the government to disclose almost everything. “The easiest thing for me to do in terms of anything I or the government could get out of this politically is to say ‘no’ to freedom of information,” he says. “You really do get nothing but flak.”

Meanwhile, the bill’s advocates have been seething. Conservative justice critic Ray Hnatyshyn charges that the Liberals are backing away from the bill because “the longer any government is in power, the less enthusiasm they have for this kind of initiative.” New Democratic Party justice critic Svend Robinson says bluntly that “stalling is killing it—if Fox bows to the provinces, he will effectively be hammering the last nail into the coffin of freedom of information.”

One senior federal cabinet minister— a strong advocate of the bill—insists that the party’s rank and file will be furious if the government abandons its commitment to more open government. He also admits, however, that the bill is simply not a priority and that he has not had time to concentrate on the issue. That situation means that the government is torn between the grim chance to unearth its bureaucratic skeletons and the rare opportunity to placate the provinces. The betting now is that Ottawa will grab the easy way out.

MARY JANIGAN