National Post

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October 17, 2000

Grits assail public's right to know, bureaucrats threatened, agency says

Information watchdog files scathing report

Ian Jack
National Post

OTTAWA - The Prime Minister's Office is conducting a full-scale assault on the public right to scrutinize how it is governed via access to information, the Information Commissioner, John Reid, said yesterday in a blistering attack on the conduct of the Liberal government.

In an unprecedented report, he accused Jean Chrétien's administration of threatening commission staff who tried to uncover hidden government documents. Mr. Reid said senior bureaucrats were threatening the careers of those charged with protecting the public's right to know.

"There is a full counterattack in progress against the office of the Information Commissioner," led by the Prime Minister's Office, the Privy Council Office, Treasury Board and the Department of Justice, Mr. Reid wrote in a report. "The backlash has become tangible" against the Commissioner's investigations, generated by a "palpable animosity towards the right of access."

Members of his staff have had their careers threatened by bureaucrats bent on stalling or preventing the release of information to taxpayers, he alleges.

Coming on the eve of today's publication of the Auditor-General's report, expected to be critical of the government's handling of several issues, including the "$1-billion boondoggle" at the Human Resources department, the Information Commissioner's blast against allegedly systemic cover-up attempts could damage the Liberals.

"When the Commissioner's subpoenas, searches and questions come too insistently or too close to the top, the mandarins circle the wagons," the report says. "The future careers in the public service of the Commissioner's staff have, in not so subtle terms, been threatened .... This development is inexcusably unprofessional and profoundly troubling."

Mr. Reid would not provide details in an interview, but said senior bureaucrats have let it be known "subtly" to his senior staff that they may not be welcome if they want to transfer into other civil service positions.

"If members of the public service come to believe that it is career suicide to work, and do a good job, for the Information Commissioner, the future viability and effectiveness of the Commissioner's office is in grave jeopardy," he writes.

Mr. Reid is equally blunt about other government efforts to make his job difficult.

"The Treasury Board's attack involved starving the commissioner of vital resources to do the job," he said of the government department responsible for approving his budget. Mr. Reid said he got only 60% of the funds he asked for this year, despite agreement from the Treasury Board that he needed the full amount.

"For its part, the Privy Council Office decided to resist and challenge almost all of the commissioner's investigative powers," he said. Both PCO, the central policy arm of government, and the Prime Minister's Office have forced him into costly court cases to get documents that the justice department has then refused to pay to defend, further straining his budget, Mr. Reid said.

The Information Commissioner, an officer of Parliament, advocates more open government and takes on cases where citizens allege the government is not giving out information it is legally bound to provide. The Access to Information Act says government information should be available to citizens, with only limited exceptions .

"The purpose of this Act is to extend the present laws of Canada to provide a right of access to information in records under the control of a government institution in accordance with the principles that government information should be available to the public, that necessary exemptions to the right of access should be limited and specific and that decisions on the disclosure of government information should be reviewed independently of government."

Lucienne Robillard, president of the Treasury Board, denied the Information Commissioner's Office has been starved of resources. It received a 32% funding increase last year, more than most government agencies, she said. "When I compare to other agencies, I think he has sufficient funds."

She called on Mr. Reid to provide details of the alleged harassment of staff. "He makes very troubling allegations [and] we are not aware of any such incidents. I hope he will bring to me some specifics."

And Ms. Robillard said there is no campaign to prevent access. "We're not saying the situation is perfect. But ... we're committed to citizens getting access."

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