When it comes to government access, Manitoba’s laws are less than helpful in allowing the free flow of data and information when media organizations make requests.
And that’s at the best of times — all too often the government throws up roadblocks to access requests such as exorbitant costs or delayed releases, in order to deter would-be record inquiries.
Manitoba’s less-than-stellar record in this regard was underscored yesterday when Newspapers Canada released its eighth annual National Freedom of Information Audit.
As per the press release, this year’s study put special emphasis on asking for electronic data, to test government’s commitment to the concept of open data.
“We found that governments may boast about being open with their data, but they don't always live up to that talk,” Newspapers Canada spokesman Jason Grier said. “Open data doesn't really mean much if it’s only carefully manicured data, with anything interesting or newsworthy stripped out before the public has access.”
The auditors made detailed access to information requests of 18 different cities, including Winnipeg, all 10 provinces, the Yukon and the federal government.
Newspapers Canada made 15 requests to the Manitoba government. They took an average of 40 days to be processed, and only three requests were released in full. Seven were denied in part, three were denied in full, and two generated a response of “no records.”
The report had several criticisms of the province’s handling of the requests. One denial in particular — a request for data from the province’s database of repair and maintenance needs of provincial highway bridges — drew scorn from the audit as the province claimed it was not “feasible.”
“It said it would have to print out paper copies from the database and black out information manually, rather than remove any exempt information electronically,” the report states.
Overall, Manitoba scored very poorly in the audit, earning a D average for completeness of disclosure and speed of responses.
Interestingly, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservatives have had some success using provincial freedom of information laws to hold the governing NDP’s feet to the political fires.
One of the most recent examples of the party’s use of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act has been the boondoggle surrounding former Immigration and Multiculturalism minister Christine Melnick who was booted out of the NDP caucus after she says she was told to be a scapegoat for Premier Greg Selinger over the immigration group invitation scandal.
Melnick, who now sits as an independent, initially denied ordering civil servants to invite government-funded immigrant service agency workers to watch a debate at the legislature two years ago.
After the provincial ombudsman showed last December that Melnick was behind the plan, contrary to her initial denial, information obtained by the Tories through an FOI search turned up an email from 2012 that showed a direct link between the former minister and the questions that were asked in 2012.
As the Winnipeg Sun wrote, however, the email came two years too late. The Tories allege that two nearly identical information requests were filed through FIPPA — one in 2012 at the height of the controversy, and one nearly two years later. The damning correspondence only came on the second request, thus prompting the Conservatives to declare the NDP is meddling with Manitoba’s FOI records.
There may well be a good explanation of this — an oversight, perhaps, or new personnel. But generally, the province hides behind its own legislation that seems more designed to stymie access, not enhance it.
Since the Tories find this law so useful, however, we’d like to see them offer a plank in their election platform that would change the legislation’s bias against releasing information in order to make access faster and more complete.
That, at least, would certainly get our attention.