sunlight is the best disinfectant

You may never hear about the next potential scandal waiting to detonate within the Yukon government, thanks to proposed changes to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

You may never hear about the next potential scandal waiting to detonate within the Yukon government, thanks to proposed changes to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

One change in particular should worry anyone who cares about keeping politicians honest. It appears it will block a source of information that has often produced a treasure trove of valuable information – emails between officials concerning government policy.

This raises many troubling questions.

Would we have known that Dennis Fentie, the former premier, had berated senior Environment officials for preparing pro-conservation documents for the plan to protect the Peel watershed? Or, more recently, that Environment officials were out of the loop when the territory produced its new plans for the region?

Would we know today that during the years leading up to the deaths of five Yukoners from carbon monoxide poisoning in January, officials knew that the regulatory system for oil-burning furnaces didn’t work, and many home furnaces were unsafe, yet they and our political leaders failed to do much about it?

It’s hard to say. But all of the above controversies depended on the release of government papers that we may not longer see. The clause in question would restrict access to documents “relating to the making of government decisions or the formulation of government policy.” Precisely what that applies to remains unclear, even to officials who currently administer the act. That’s hardly reassuring.

This much we know: secrecy tends to be default within governments. That’s why access-to-information laws exist.

Several years ago, the Yukon Party, to its credit, pushed through changes in law to improve transparency. It expanded the number of agencies to be covered by the access-to-information laws to include Yukon Energy, the Yukon Hospital Corporation and the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board, among others.

Officials have also worked to improve the openness of government. In 2009, the information and privacy commissioner found that nearly one-quarter of information requests went unanswered. By comparison, the commissioner’s most recent report, for 2011, found most requests were responded to before the clock ran out. Newspapers Canada similarly gave the territory an A grade for responding to access requests in a recent report.

Now it appears as if we’re preparing to take a big step backward.

Other proposed changes would forbid the release of draft reports (the sort that may include embarrassing details that can be whitewashed from the final copy), and ban the release of entire categories of documents, rather than merely call for the redaction of sensitive information.

Asked to defend these changes, Wade Istchenko, the minister responsible for the access-to-information laws, instead uttered misleading statements in the legislature this week. He claimed that the territory’s information and privacy commissioner had been consulted and agreed with the changes.

Wrong. It turns out that the commissioner, Tim Koepke, had written a detailed response that roundly criticizes the changes. He concludes it “undermines the spirit” of the act. As for the clause we’ve discussed above, Koepke found it curtails the law in a way not found elsewhere in the country.

It makes any sensible onlooker wonder: what the heck kind of advice is Istchenko getting, anyways? In the past, we could find out, by requesting copies of his briefing notes. But the proposed amendments will make these briefing notes, too, secret.

The Yukon Party is fond of claiming that it runs an open and accountable government. It should be aware that the proposed amendments undermine these claims. And, while the changes may seem advantageous to the current cabinet, it will likely haunt them. No party stays in power forever, and one day the Yukon Party will find itself in Opposition, wishing it could pry more information from the government.

The territory’s MLAs should nix the contentious amendment that looks set to lock up all correspondence pertaining to policy. They should also heed Koepke’s advice to add an override that allows the release of information in special circumstances, when it’s clearly in the public interest. British Columbia, for one, has such a clause.

B.C.‘s commissioner also wields real power, including the ability to order agencies to release information. Here, our information commissioner may only make recommendations to government. If the Yukon Party was serious about running an open government, it would consider providing Koepke with similar powers.

While they’re at it, they could give the man a full-time job. Currently, he holds two quarter-time jobs: one as information commissioner, and one as ombudsman. His predecessor, Tracy-Anne McPhee, long asked for the job to become a full-time position, to no avail.

While we’re at it, why not bring the territory’s access-to-information systems into the modern day – or at least the 1990s? Currently, correspondence related to requests are handled by the postal service and fax machine. Documents are often printed and photocopied, rather than emailed. That’s not just quaint – it’s also pricey for applicants whose requests take more than three hours to process. Any time above that costs $25 per hour and 25 cents per page, which may often translate into hundreds of dollars.

And a new push could be made to ensure that government reports are proactively published online. Some agencies are good at doing this, while others – we’re looking at you, Yukon Hospital Corp. – are not.