Reforms for the Access to Information Act that the Federal Government are Hesitant to Reform

 Locate and briefly discuss one call for the reform of Canada’s Access to Information Act. This could take the form of a government report, an NGO report, a media article, or an academic article. Drawing on one or more socio-legal theories, explain why the federal government has not reformed the ATIA in response to this call. For example, you could reflect on the functions of ATI/FOI laws, the relationship secrecy and bureaucracy, the ideology of Access, or the relationship between ATI/FOI and sovereign power.

In an article written by CBC in July 2012 labeled “Action to Access to Information Act turns 30 amid calls for reform”, illustrated two important issues regarding the need to reform the Access to Information Act. The first issue raised was that receiving information after applying for access to information took commonly longer than the estimated time frame. The second issue raised was the frustration of journalists when the Cabinet confidence exemption is utilized.

The Access to Information Act came into effect on July 1st, 1983 (CBC, 2012). This act allowed individuals in society to apply for public records that were not disclosed to the public by the government. By following a bureaucratic process of submitting forms, an individual would be able to receive public records from the government. However since its enactment 30 years ago there has been much frustration and demand for reform. The issue of requests taking longer than the 30 day deadline has started to become much more common. In the CBC article the rate of extension to information request increased by 18.6 percent. What is even more problematic was that situations in which a requester got absolutely no information increased by 49.1 percent (CBC, 2012). There was great demand for the reform of the act to make sure that extensions would decrease. The commissioner of information Suzanne Legault first response to this issue was that there was indeed an issue with the government not complying to the legislation that outline the deadline for information to be delivered. She stated that she was trying to push for her and her department to have more power to distribute information if the access to information request was taking too long. However in an interview with CBC a short while after she stated that “I just think we need to have a basic timeline that is more defined than what we have now, which basically says a ‘reasonable extension under the circumstances (CBC, 2012)”.

The second reform to the Access to Information Act that many journalists advocate for is that the act minimizes the usage of Cabinet confidence exemption. Under the law a department can withhold information if the information is deemed to be utilized to make decisions (CBC, 2012). However as the CBC article states the number of exemptions that have occurred due to Cabinet confidence exemption is the size of “Mack Truck” (CBC, 2012). Certain information can be thrown into this exemption simply if it could embarrass a minister if it became public. The commissioner of information briefly stated that there needs to be a balance between what should be kept secret within the government and what should be disclosed to the public.

The question that arises from the issue of the government prolonging the time frame to disperse information as well as increase the amount of requesters who receive no information can be explained through the use of Marxist’s theory. Marxist’s theory is based on the belief that laws are created to benefit the elite class while exploiting the working class (Pavlich, 2011). The elite class needs to maintain the interests of a capitalist’s society, and therefore exploiting the working class does this. By not providing information to the public, or denying access to information the government is able to protect information that may bring awareness to the working class the many ways they are being exploited. This could disrupt the interests of the elite class. Marxist theory therefore can illustrate that the function of ATI/FOI laws is to protect the interests of the elite class.

Another important aspect of Marxism that can outline the reasoning as to why the government has not made the requested reforms to the Access to Information Act is due to the fact that “access” is an ideology. Marxist stated that the state utilized ideologies to hide injustices (Pavlich, 2011). The government appears to be transparent as it allows for individuals within a society to apply for information. Therefore all information is deemed to be available. However what makes access an ideology is due to the numerous exceptions that are in place to withhold information from the public. As the CBC articles outlines the government is able to withhold information utilizing the cabinet confidence exemption. In addition the government is able to continuously prolong the amount of time it takes to deliver access to information requests without any penalty. Therefore access is an ideology, for as a society we are taught that we can access all information when in reality this belief (ideology), is suppressing the fact that the government is withholding information, which is unjust.

References:

 CBC News (2012). Action to Access to Information Act turns 30 amid calls for reform. Retrieved

from http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/access-to-information-act-turns-30-amid-calls-for-

reform-1.1148320

Pavlich, George (2011). Law & Society Redefined. New York: Oxford University Press.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Reforms for the Access to Information Act that the Federal Government are Hesitant to Reform

  1. Good choice of article!

    Your application of Marxist legal theory to this issue is generally effective. I am particularly interested in your remarks about the ideological dimensions of the ATIA. The idea that ‘access to information’ implies that all information is potentially available – and that this serves an ideological function – is important. Good work.