Hon. Tony Clement
President of the Treasury Board
Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat
Re: Open Government Consultations
Dear Minister Clement,
Thank you for the opportunity to participate in the consultation process for Canada’s Open Government Action Plan 2.0.
We are writing on behalf of the Canadian Association of Journalists in response to the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat’s request for recommendations on what types of activities should be included in Canada’s Open Government Action Plan 2.0.
The Canadian Association of Journalists sincerely appreciates your government’s ongoing verbal and written commitments to increased openness and transparency. Unfortunately, in practice, many of our members have found your government has had difficulty meeting these commitments.
It is our strong belief that this action plan must modernize the country’s outdated Access to Information Act. As you know, the country’s information commissioners – both past and present – have repeatedly advised your government and its predecessors to do just that.
Most importantly, our association recommends narrowing or eliminating the exemptions and exclusions in the Act. Those exemptions and exclusions detail what kinds of information cannot or may not be obtained using an access to information request – including, for example, advice to cabinet ministers and cabinet documents. In effect, they create unassailable secret spaces in Canada’s public bodies.
While such privacy may be necessary in limited circumstances (such as those involving current and specific national security or law enforcement issues), it is more often inconsistent with the principle of open government, public expectations of how a modern democracy should function and our firm conviction that government documents belong to the public.
Furthermore, our association recommends Canada’s Open Government Action Plan 2.0 must include a commitment to allow civil servants to freely speak to members of the media without interference or involvement from communications staff.
In the United States, the presidents of the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Press Club recently described limitations on that freedom as having “the same effect as censorship. It hides problems that need to be exposed.”
Moreover, such limitations are inconsistent with past government practices in this country. For example, in 1979, then-prime minister Joe Clark issued guidelines stating that talking to reporters was “part of the duties and responsibilities of managers in the public service.” The guidelines reportedly did not require civil servants to seek approval from communications to have such conversations.
We support such an approach and would encourage the government to also adopt it as part of its Open Government Action Plan 2.0.
Thank you for your consideration. We look forward to continuing a dialogue with you on these and other issues.
Sean Michael Holman
Canadian Association of Journalists director
Canadian Association of Journalists president