Getting access to records about government decisions and policies has long played a key role in the work of many journalists around the world. It will also be a key element for me in the weeks, months and years to come.
So to end off 2014, here are a few examples of some of my recent experiences with government efforts to either release or hide information.
Canada’s information watchdog has noted that the Supreme Court of Canada recognizes access to information as a quasi-constitutional right of all Canadians.
Obtaining access to information is an extension of freedom of expression since it allows the population to be informed and speak about government policies and decisions on how these governments spend public money.
Deleted records at the Canada Revenue Agency
The Canada Revenue Agency took more than a day to answer some basic questions about its decision to delete some instant messaging records of its employees.
You can find my report on this case over here in the Toronto Star.
The CRA declined to answer some of my questions directly, including whether it had verified whether any of the information deleted was of “business value.” By law, all Canadian government organizations are required to preserve records of “business value.”
When I asked some simple follow up questions – including whether any of its senior officials or media officers ever communicate with the minister or with Conservative political staffers in her office using text messages – the CRA called to complain that it wasn’t reasonable for me to ask these questions and expect them to respond within a couple of hours.
More than a week after I first asked questions and requested an interview with its commissioner, the CRA confirmed it was logging Internet activity of its employees – including on their mobile devices – in case it needed this information to review potential cases of misconduct, but that it wasn’t logging their text messages.
Why does it keep one set of logs and not the other?
The CRA declined to answer this question.
You can find some of the emails detailing the CRA instructions to delete records of instant messages over here.
Foreign Affairs: This reporter’s question is “undeserving of a response.”
Last summer, Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development wasn’t providing a lot of information about its relationship with the American Legislative Exchange Council. The council, also known as ALEC, is a secretive organization. It benefits from charitable status based on its mandate to “educate” U.S. state legislators by connecting them with corporations to draft model pieces of legislation.
A series of high-tech firms including Google left ALEC in recent months because it continued to host discussions of people without scientific credentials that cast doubt about peer-reviewed research showing the link between human activity and climate change.
“I will suggest we decline the two requested interviews.” – John Babcock, spokesman for Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.
Canadian diplomats have had some exchanges with members of ALEC as part of the federal government’s efforts to promote the oilsands and TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. But senior diplomats declined to grant interviews, which led me to write a series of detailed questions to the department in writing.
The department sent me some general and vague statements about who Canadian diplomats were meeting and what they were discussing.
In response to questions asking for details about diplomatic discussions with lobbyists on energy issues, a Canadian government spokesman recommended evasive answers before getting feedback from diplomats about whether they had the answers. This spokesman told his colleagues in internal emails that he believed I was “attempting to make specious connections.” He also said one of my questions was “undeserving of a response.”
He also suggested declining the interview requests, without even knowing the answers to the questions raised.
One Canadian diplomat also sent an email to other officials in the department asking them to tell the journalist that she was “not available” for an interview.
You can find these internal emails here.
Transport Canada’s vacant positions
Over a span of several weeks, Transport Canada declined to answer a series of basic questions about critical positions that are vacant in its rail safety and dangerous goods divisions – vacancies that appear to date back to at least 2009.
It confirmed it had vacant oversight and inspector positions within its dangerous goods and rail safety divisions but it declined to identify them or even confirm whether it knew exactly how many of these positions were vacant.
After Reuters reported on internal records detailing these vacancies, the federal New Democrats attempted to raise the issue in Parliament.
In response to questions from NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie in the House of Commons, the parliamentary secretary to the transport minister, Jeff Watson, said that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government wouldn’t apologize for cutting “waste.”
“We make no apologies for reducing back office expenses while putting the resources where they belong on front-line safety,” Watson said.
The government declined to share details of what it had cut until it was forced to answer these questions through Canada’s Access to Information Act, which requires it to release public records upon request within 30 days to any Canadian who pays the $5.00 fee.
The records, received about 40 days after the request, confirm what Reuters had reported about vacant engineering and oversight positions. It also revealed these surprising details:
– All six senior positions in the Transportation of Dangerous Goods secretariat, including the manager, are vacant
– Five out of seven positions for scientists who review emergency response plans of companies transporting dangerous cargo are vacant at Transport Canada’s headquarters.
– Five out of seven positions at the headquarters are vacant for dangerous goods inspectors under chief enforcement
– Five out of 15 positions responsible for risk evaluation are vacant, including the chief of risk evaluation, and two accident analysts.
Liberal transportation critic David McGuinty said in an interview that the department appeared to be hiding information.
“Instead of coming clean and saying, we have a capacity problem right now, they wont do it,” said McGuinty in an interview. “They’ve got some explaining to do.”
You can find these records and the information that Transport Canada previously declined to release over here.
Or scroll down below to see the email records from both Foreign Affairs; the charts of vacant and filled Transport Canada positions; and the emails from the CRA sending instructions from the office of the agency’s commissioner and chief executive officer for the deletion of internal records.
In terms of transparency, a public servant – who tipped me off about one of these stories -told me that all ministers in the Canadian government are transparent – because you can look right through them and see the prime minister’s office in the background.