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Revamp Access to Information law, say federal advisory panel members

OTTAWA - Several members of the federal advisory panel on open government are urging the Conservatives to reform the Access to Information Act, a law that has barely changed in more than 30 years.

The panel of experts from business, academia and civil society is providing advice to Ottawa on preparations for the next open government plan, to be released this fall.

In their first plan, published in 2012, the Conservatives focused on making data sets more readily available, increasing access to archived federal documents and developing new ways to consult Canadians online.

The government has made no commitment to reforming the Access to Information Act despite calls for modernization from the federal information watchdog, opposition parties and pro-democracy groups.

It is now clear that some members of the government's own advisory panel are also pushing for reforms to a law that has been widely criticized as archaic, cumbersome, slow and often an obstacle to openness.

Panel member Teresa Scassa, a University of Ottawa law professor, said the act is "substantially out of date" and in dire need of reform.

"It's certainly something that I've raised, and I know the government's aware of it," Scassa said in an interview.

"They may have their own reasons for not putting it high on the agenda, but I personally think that this remains an important piece of the transparency and accountability agenda."

The law allows people who pay $5 to request a variety of records from federal agencies — from correspondence and briefing notes to expense reports and audits. The government is supposed to respond within 30 days, or provide good reasons why a delay is necessary.

In her most recent report, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault repeated her call for an overhaul of the access law.

New Democrat MP Pat Martin and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau have introduced private member's bills that would substantially change the law with the aim of making more information easily available to requesters and beefing up the information commissioner's powers.

Canada's law, which took effect in 1983, has fallen "significantly behind" those of other nations, including Brazil, India and Mexico, said Toby Mendel, an advisory panel member and executive director of the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy.

"All of these countries have leapfrogged way ahead of us," he said in an interview.

"Like a broken record, I always reiterate the need to reform the Access to Information law. There's certainly no commitment by the government to do that."

Mendel stressed that he supports the federal effort to release more government data through web portals on everything from ice thickness to visa applications.

"But it is easy openness," he said. "It's much more difficult to say, 'We're going to expose ourselves to the request-driven access, which means we have to disclose something we don't really want to see in the open, but we're going to do it because we believe in openness and it should be open.'"

Advisory panel member David Eaves, a public policy entrepreneur and open government activist, said he and some others on the panel "have advocated that there be a review of the Access to Information law."

However, the subject has not been discussed in great detail, he added.

Eaves said he would like to see a system that takes government information into account "much more holistically" and embeds transparency into all federal processes instead of merely at the end stage, when someone requests a finished record.

"Do I think we need to have a revision of what Access to Information looks like in light of the computer era? Absolutely."

Asked for Justice Minister Peter MacKay's position on reforming the access law, spokeswoman Paloma Aguilar defended the government's administration of the current law, saying the Conservatives had answered more requests than all previous administrations subject to the law combined.

The government reviews all private member's bills that come forward, she added.

Scassa sees little evidence the government will revise the access law. "I don't think there's an appetite to do it."

Mendel is also skeptical.

"I don't believe that there will be a commitment to reform the Access to Information law. But I would be very pleasantly surprised if I were wrong on that."

Eaves is keeping an open mind.

"We'll see what they say in their second action plan."

Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

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