Alberta has an appalling record on openness

Alberta has an appalling record on openness by Don Braid, September 25, 2012, Calgary Herald
CALGARY — It’s right-to-know week, which means it’s also right-to-pound-Alberta week. Please go ahead, because our government’s record on telling people what’s going on is beneath shabby. It’s so awful, in fact, that aspects of our Freedom of Information rank system among the worst in the world. In a study release earlier in the year, the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy reached the astonishing conclusion that elements of Alberta’s disclosure law score below such models of democracy as Angola and Niger. “It is particularly notable that Alberta is one of very few jurisdictions to score zero out of the 14 points allocated for problematic exceptions — meaning it is one of the worst access laws in the world in this regard,” the centre said.

Michael Karanicolas, legal officer for the centre, told me Monday that “Alberta’s legal framework, as it currently stands, provides an enormous amount of leeway for public officials who want to avoid disclosing information.” In April, the centre said “Alberta’s poor score came mainly as a result of the narrow scope of the law and the overly broad regime of exceptions.” “These loopholes, which include blanket exclusions for the offices of MLAs and for information relating to government contracts, severely undermine the ability of the law to function properly as a tool for public accountability.” Premier Alison Redford recently announced that expenses and other details will soon be released online every two months. But the Centre issues a warning. Governments can use such “proactive disclosure” to release some information, and then refuse to reveal the rest. … The problem is that when the package arrives, there might not be much in it.

“It’s not much use to get information quickly when the information turns out to be missing,” says John Hinds, president and CEO of Newspapers Canada. This industry group has just released an independent university study giving Alberta a D for the quality and quantity of information released. Only Quebec and New Brunswick fared worse. … Overall, the biggest problem is “paramountcy” — the tendency of the province to declare big chunks of important laws paramount to Freedom of Information legislation. This now protects all or parts of 38 laws, including some on health and oilsands, from FOI requests. … Facing so much criticism from within and without, the government now promises to address a problem that’s starting to damage Alberta’s image. Redford named a sub-minister for transparency, Don Scott. There’s a Right to Know Forum at McDougall Centre on Tuesday, featuring new commissioner Jill Clayton, Service Alberta Minister Manmeet Bhullar, and disclosure experts from several public outfits, including our beloved AHS. [Emphasis added]

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