Newfoundland's Bill 29 a key concern in Newspaper Canada FOI audit

Monday, October 15, 2012

By Grant Buckler

Originally posted on J-Source.

Bill 29, which amended Newfoundland and Labrador’s Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act this spring, came in for particular criticism in Newspapers Canada’s annual Freedom of Information Audit. The federal government again got poor grades on its handling of access to information requests. And the report, released Sept. 24, also found some good news.

“The biggest setback,” said the report written by Fred Vallance-Jones of University of King’s College School of Journalism in Halifax, “came in Newfoundland and Labrador, with the passage in June of amendments to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

The changes allow officials to refuse requests on the grounds that they are frivolous and vexatious, trivial, an abuse of the right to make requests, or judged to be made in bad faith. They increase protection for cabinet records and prohibit access to cabinet ministers’ briefing notes for five years.

On the other hand, the audit welcomed federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault’s plan to review the operation of the Freedom of Information Act, holding public consultations and comparing Canada’s 30-year-old law to legislation in other countries.

It also praised Ontario for a decision to release more data on compliance with its own access to information legislation, though the audit suggested some additional measures. And it applauded the fact that New Brunswick set a date for its Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act to apply to municipalities within the province.

The audit, which is built on submitting a large number of access to information requests to the federal government, all the provinces and selected cities, gives grades from A to F to most of the governments (Prince Edward Island and Yukon were not graded, since they were not sent enough requests). Each government gets two grades, one for the speed of its responses and one for the amount of information disclosed.

The audit gave the federal government a D for speed of disclosure and a C for completeness of disclosure – the same grades it received last year.

While the feds were among the worst performers, the F grades went to British Columbia and the cities of Quebec, Hamilton, Moncton and Whitehorse for speed of disclosure, and to the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick and the cities of Fredericton, Moncton and Whitehorse for completeness.

On speed of disclosure municipalities mainly did well, with Calgary, St. John’s, Ottawa, Charlottetown, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Fredericton, Saint John, Halifax, Windsor, Montreal and Toronto all getting A grades. Ontario was the only province given an A for speed. On completeness, Saskatoon, Victoria, Windsor and the province of Nova Scotia earned A grades.

The report also warned that public officials are increasingly using “proactive disclosure” – the online publication of some government data such as expense-account summaries – as an excuse for not releasing more detailed information, for example actual receipts showing individual expenditures.