About a week ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the federal Access to Information Requests System was too expensive.
He cut its funding, eliminating a valuable tool Canadians had to access government documents.
It had been in operation since 1989.
Through it, you could see what information other Canadians had asked for, eliminating duplicate requests.
You could see what information had been released, and could ask to see it for yourself.
And, because of that, you could also find valuable information about the operation of government that people smarter than you, or more in the know, had thought to ask for.
The government spent $166,000 improving the database in 2001. It was like a central clearing house for access to information requests.
Now that it’s gone, Canadian citizens interested in obtaining government information will have to approach each department and ask what information has been requested or is available for review.
But this is how the Harper Conservatives have decided to do it.
It is hardly the action of an open and accountable government.
Responding to opposition criticism of the decision, Harper said he’d actually increased public access to information.
He cited his government’s decision to make Crown agencies open to access requests.
That was a bit of mischief making.
Specifically Harper referred to the ability of the public to probe the CBC and the Canadian Wheat Board, both agencies on the Harper government’s hit list.
Also, Harper referred to an opinion from Alasdair Roberts, an academic who is an expert in freedom of information.
The database is “the product of a political system in which centralized control is an obsession,” said Roberts in his opinion piece from 2003.
But Harper was taking the words out of context.
Interviewed by the Globe and Mail after the database was eliminated, Roberts said that shutdown of the database represented raised new questions about how Ottawa will oversee access to information requests.
“How are they doing the central oversight function, if not through CAIRS?” Roberts, a professor of law and public policy at Boston’s Suffolk University Law School in Boston, told the Globe and Mail.
“How does the [Privy Council Office Communications] and its security and intelligence office keep track of incoming requests? How do key departments keep track of sensitive requests arriving elsewhere? Have they established new processes for doing this?”
Harper’s contempt for public oversight of government is well documented — civil servants are muzzled and fired, the media is restrained, watchdogs are fired and told to submit all their decisions for vetting by the Prime Minister’s Office. This is just another example of the same paranoia.
The database was too slow, and too expensive.
The government must save money, he said.
A week later, he announced, for a second time, that $30 billion was being spent on Canada’s armed forces.
With the shutdown of the access to information database, tracking exactly how that money is spent will now be much more difficult. (RM)