Public requests for documents are being slowed by lengthy reviews in the central department that reports to the prime minister, the Information Commissioner says.
While Stephen Harper's Conservatives campaigned on opening up the access-to-information system, Information Commissioner Robert Marleau said the government's own statistics show that responses to the public's requests for information are slowing down "across the board."
"They feel that time is increasing, and that consultation with PCO is taking longer than it used to."
The number of complaints from the public has shot up dramatically in 2007, doubling since April 1 over the same period last year, he said. There were 1,257 complaints to the commissioner's office in 2006-2007.
Almost two years later, however, the Conservative government has failed to table the bill they promised to reform the access system.
And the Conservatives are now using the same excuse for refusing to release documents that they railed against in opposition: the assertion that a minister's office, including the Prime Minister's Office, is not covered by the access law. Mr. Marleau's predecessor, John Reid, took the previous Liberal government to court to contest that claim, and Mr. Marleau is continuing the case.
"If you exclude that range of activity and documentation and information, it's one giant loophole," Mr. Marleau said.
The federal government has expanded the coverage of the existing act to more Crown corporations, their subsidiaries and several boards and agencies. But the Conservatives have not followed through on their campaign pledge to table a new access law, as drafted by Mr. Reid.
Marleau offers these possible reasons:
"There's definitely a regression. Some people are saying it's the Harper government. I don't think I can state that myself now. The war in Afghanistan, and the whole sort of post-911, I think, has made a contribution to that regression."
Last time I checked, we have been in the post-911 era for six full years, not to mention our involvement in Afghanistan. I'm sure there are sensitive files, but there is also a co-relation to the government changing hands. Also, we have heard several individual examples of the government stalling on accesss, on matters that have nothing to do with national security. We have also heard of several instances, where the government buries an internal document that contradicts or undercuts the political rhetoric.
Accountability and transparency is the Conservatives signature issue. No speech by Harper fails to mention the "accomplishments" on this file, but more and more we see that in many ways this government is the most controlling, secretive, centralized in Canadian history. We see a real disconnect developing between the rhetoric and the reality, in many ways the situation is worse under these supposed crusaders.