Voting for free expression – Week Five – Ask your local candidates about government transparency

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ahead of Canada’s May 2 federal election, CJFE encourages you to ask your local candidates about their stance on critical free expression issues. Each week CJFE will post questions which you can e-mail, call or write to your candidates. We’d love to know what they say, and what your thoughts are too.

Ask your local candidates about government transparency

In Week Two of the election campaign, CJFE raised the issue of access to information and wrote about the Access to Information Act, and the process of requesting information. This week we are focusing on the role the government plays in creating transparency by providing information to the public voluntarily. The Act is one of the ways to promote government transparency, and is a step towards open government, where information is readily available without the need for specialized requests.

Previously considered a global leader, Canada has fallen behind in promoting freedom of information. Recently, the UK’s Government Information Quarterly published a study ranking Canada last in a five-country study on the effectiveness of freedom of information laws. On March 25, 2011, the Government of Canada was found in contempt of parliament for its refusal to produce information regarding the costs associated with government crime bills, cuts to corporate tax and purchasing fighter jets. The government had stated that these were matters of Cabinet confidence – a type of information which is exempt from the Access to Information Act.

It is not well defined what information can be considered a Cabinet confidence, and to what degree the government can limit parliament’s access to information. A parliamentary committee concluded that the government’s failure to produce the documents impeded the House of Common’s in performing its functions and constitutes a contempt of parliament.

The Canadian government has taken some positive steps though, in making information more accessible for Canadians. On March 17, 2011, the government website Open Data was launched as a means for public servants to share data. The available datasets are limited though, with only ten federal departments contributing. For instance, Health Canada, which was one of the top five recipients of Access to Information requests for 2009 and 2010, is absent from the list of contributors. Much of the information is outdated and the license that users must accept to access the information includes permissions and restrictions that are quite onerous. It’s a work in progress, but still a step in the right direction.

One of the main factors in ensuring government transparency is the availability of information. The easier it is for members of the government, journalists and the general public to acquire information on government activities, the better equipped we are to hold the government accountable for its actions. While some progress is being made, there is still far too much information that is being withheld, or is difficult to access.

We invite you to ask your candidates the following:

1) What is your opinion on the current level of transparency with the Canadian government?
2) If elected, what steps will you take to make the government more transparent?

You can e-mail, call or write to the candidates in your riding, and let us know what they say on our Facebook Discussion Board. We'd love to know what your thoughts are on these issues too.

Not sure who your candidates are or how to get a hold of them? Elections Canada allows you to search by your postal code to find information on your riding.