Open Wide: Liveblogging the Info Commissioner’s annual report

At a news conference to discuss the release of his office’s first Special Report in over two years,  Information Commissioner Robert Marleau won’t just be handing out  report cards (although he’ll be doing that, too, and it sounds like some departments won’t be posting the results proudly on the refrigerator door) – he’ll also be discussing “systemic issues related to Access to Information in Canada”.

10:45:06 AM
Greetings from the technical briefing, which is actually more of a lockup, or at least it had turned into one by the time I got here; we’re not actually being briefed, although there’s a helpful InfoComm staffer available to answer any questions that come up. I’m pretty sure that the report itself is under embargo until it is tabled in the House, so I won’t be posting this update until the news conference gets underway.

Anyway, here’s how the various departments fared – the grading is based on a star system, by the way, not letters, which makes me wonder where Sun Media got the idea that there were “F-Bomb”s looming. (Not that receiving only two stars is much better, of course.):

Departments surveyed:
RCMP – ** (below average)
PWGSC – **
PCO – *** (average)
NRCan – *** 1/2 (average)
Library and Archives – **** 1/2 (above average)
Health Canada – **
DFAIT – **
Defence – ** 1/2
Justice – ***** (outstanding)
CBSA – ** 1/2

So – of the ten federal departments and institutions, five were “below average”: the RCMP, Public Works, Health, Foreign Affairs and Defence. PCO – often seen as one of the worst offenders as far as stonewalling requests – managed to eke out that all-important half-star to bump it up to average, and the Department of Justice is at the head of the class. Nevertheless, the report “issues a dire diagnosis for Access to Information in Canada” – and in thirty seconds, the Info Commissioner himself will be here to tell us all about it.

10:58:42 AM
And here he is!

Hopefully I didn’t just break the embargo. Anyway, Marleau seems to be in a chipper mood for such a bleak report; although he gives passing praise to the changes to the ATI laws brought in via the Accountability Act, he quickly moves to the dire, as promised, and the “much darker” big picture, from the “disturbing trend” towards lengthy time extensions to “widespread deficiencies in information management”, which he seems to see as the real culprit – there is a “major information crisis”, he says, and access to information – and, presumably, Access to Information – has become hostage, and “is about to become victim.”

11:03:18 AM
All this, by the way, is indicative of a “lack of leadership at the highest level of government” – which is why he’s calling on Treasury Board to “exercise more forceful leadership.” Sorry, did I hear that correctly? *Treasury Board*? They just set the guidelines – they don’t enforce them. (That’s the English translation of the departmental Latin motto, right?)

11:06:56 AM
And with that, on to the questions. First up, the Toronto Star’s Richard Brennan, who notes that just yesterday, the opposition claimed that ATI requests were being “vetted” by PMO, and wonders if that’s true or an “urban myth”. Marleau notes that he, too, has heard tell, but “anecdotally” – and these reports weren’t able to confirm that, although he did discover a “tiger team” at National Defence that was set up to deal with all requests related to Afghanistan.

11:10:01 AM
Another reporter queries him about “leadership” – does he mean *political* leadership? Yes – but not *just* political leadership. Marleau notes that, while it is “perfectly legal” for departments to give themselves extensions, he doesn’t think it’s reasonable when those extensions get longer and longer, and he doesn’t like it.

He’s also not so big on the current Access to Information *Act*, by the way, and points out that he’s the fourth commissioner to call for legislative reform, but so far, he doesn’t seem to have had much better luck than his predecessors.

11:14:04 AM
CanWest’s Andrew Mayeda gets the first – and please, let it be the last – O reference, and wonders if the Prime Minister, whose government is known — or at least perceived — as somewhat less transparent than it could be — should make a similarly public statement to make sure all civil servants _- and ministers, presumably – know that ATI is a priority. Marleau thinks that would be an excellent idea, and ITQ will totally liveblog that prime ministerial press conference.

11:16:40 AM
La Presse wonders how he – Marleau, that is – responds to the criticism that he’s a somewhat toothless watchdog – and he does his best to bare his fangs, such as they are; he points to the efforts he’s made to meet with departments to follow up on the last report cards. He’s more like a Saint Bernard than a Rottweiler, I guess.

11:18:13 AM
Back to the “tiger team” – were they actually *censoring* information on Afghanistan? Marleau isn’t ready to go *that* far, but he will say that their efforts slowed things down considerably.

11:20:09 AM
Every government since 1983 bears some of the responsibility for the current ATI imbroglio, says Marleau, which has to have made Pat Martin’s day – he can blame the Liberals *and* the Conservatives! He’s here, by the way, waiting to react to the report, which he’ll do right after Dan McTeague gets his turn at the microphone. So far, no sign of the Bloc Quebecois, but I’m sure they’re outraged too.

Ooh, and Pat Martin gets a shoutout from Marleau, who acknowledges the private members’ bill he introduced earlier this week, and notes that he’ll be appearing before committee next week. Whee!

11:22:44 AM
A question about PCO, and the recommendation that the Clerk be more involved leads to what sounds like a contradiction of the answer he gave in response to that question on “vetting” by PCO. He notes that, when it comes to Cabinet Confidences, it is the office he hears about the most often – albeit anecdotally – as delaying the process. Wait, so they *are* partly to blame? Or does this go to the difference between Cabinet Confidences and standard ATI requests? Is there some way to see if there has been an increase in the quantity of material being declared to be Cabinet Confidences?

11:27:09 AM
A reporter wonders how a request can be delayed for two years without an active agenda to prevent the information from being released, and seems less than impressed with Marleau’s answer, which seems to be mostly about his desire not to be *adversarial*. The reporter wonders: Isn’t that kind of stonewalling an adversial position by the department? No, not according to Marleau – depending on the context, it may be entirely reasonable.

“I can bark and bark,” Marleau reminds the room – but this is the law he has to work with, and it will take political leadership to change that.

11:31:09 AM
Back to the PCO “vetting” issue – if it *was* happening, would he disapprove of it? Marleau doesn’t really answer that question, but he notes in a surprisingly offhand way that there is, of course, a “stranglehold” on communication by the centre, so it wouldn’t be that surprising if it occasionally filtered down to public servants, but he has “no evidence” that there is active vetting of specific requests.

11:34:01 AM
Brennan wonders if he sees a “culture of secrecy” in this government, and Marleau – seems to reject that: there is a risk-averse, disclosure-averse public service, but to suggest an organized secrecy would be incorrect. He does go back to that “stranglehold” on communications, and notes that it does send the message that you don’t talk without approval.

11:36:59 AM
A question from the Globe’s Campbell Clark on the PM’s agenda case, which is still before the courts, thanks to an appeal by the InfoComm; Marleau contends that all ministerial information – ministerial, mind you, not personal or political – should be public, which is a very very very short version of the argument he’s making in court.

11:38:39 AM
More about the “culture of secrecy”, this time from a French reporter, and Marleau gives much the same reply – he once again criticizes the government for a lack of leadership, but won’t go so far as to suggest that there is a lack of desire to be transparent. Which, incidentally, is clearly frustrating more than a few reporters; perhaps they’ll get more from Dan McTeague, who is about to take the floor, or Pat Martin, who will be up right afterwards.

11:42:55 AM
And here’s Dan McTeague now, who is undaunted by Marleau’s refusal to categorially condemn the government, and points to various ‘damning comments’ that appeared in his report. Hey, there’s Paul Szabo – he just wandered in, and is now sitting with Pat Martin. Maybe an Ethics meeting will break out.

11:45:35 AM
First question from La Presse; Why does he think so many more peole are requesting information under the Act, as noted in the report? “That’s democracy,” McTeague notes, although he points out that the government dismantled the database that coordinated ATI requests, which may mean more people are asking for the same information. He goes on in that vain for a while until the reporter gets frustrated by his apparent point-missing: Isn’t it possible that people are now forced to file requests for information that would, in earlier times, have been handed over immediately?

McTeague sort of allows that this might be possible; he’s then asked if the Liberals will support Martin’s bill, and he doesn’t seem to want to give a direct answer, pointing out that he hasn’t seen the full bill, and he’s not sure whether it will be made voteable, and a priority – as in, on the Order Paper, not politically – but Campbell Clark keeps after him. The opposition has a majority in the House, he reminds McTeague – if they’re serious about reforming the Access to Information Act, they could just do it, right? McTeague sticks to his no-direct–answering guns, though, no matter how many reporters press him on the issue. He wants to see the bill first, and that’s that.

11:53:53 AM
“Dan, let’s cut to the chase,” says a clearly frustrated Brennan: the current ATI system is a *joke*. McTeague doesn’t disagree, but once again notes that he wants to wait to see Marleau’s proposals for reform.

11:56:09 AM
And now, a word – a brief word, if he’s smart, since most of us have been here for more than an hour and not everyone can file by berry like ITQ – from Pat Martin.

11:57:57 AM
After promising to be brief – good call, Mr. Martin – he begins on a surprisingly gracious note, thanking McTeague for voicing some of the opposition’s concerns, before outlining his bill – which, he notes, is the *very bill* that the PM initially promised to bring in; it is also exactly the bill proposed by former Info Commissioner John Reid. “Steal this bill!” He invites all and sundry – other MPs with higher slots on the Order Paper, or even the government.

12:00:45 PM
Asked why he thinks McTeague – and by extension, the Liberals – was less than effusive in *his* support for the bill, Martin points out that the Liberals think they’re going to be in government again someday, and may be getting advice from “senior mandarins” that it might not be wise to impose such transparency upon their future selves. But with increased public pressure, he thinks that they may be forced to join with the NDP and pass this bill. “I’ve often said you’ll never get ATI legislation through in a majority parliament,” he notes. This is the window of opportunity. Act now!

12:04:11 PM
Shoutout to Yes, Minister – Open Government really is one of the greatest half hours of television ever – as Martin explains that he blames both politicians and the bureaucracy for the trend towards opaquicity, which is not a word, I know. Also, I’m really not always the biggest fan of Pat Martin’s schtick, but he’s really doing well here – very entertaining and informative. This is a good issue for him.

Sorry, back to what he’s actually saying — he fields a question from a reporter on whether Canadians actually care about Access issues, and the answer is yes, he thinks that they do, and there will be wide public support for his bill, or one just like I.

And – yes, that’s all. A fascinating hour of livebloggery, if I do say so myself.