Federal Justice Minister Anne McLellan and her cabinet colleagues should be red-faced these days for conducting what appears to be a less than open review of the Access to Information Act.
The inherent contradiction in this kind of behaviour should be obvious to McLellan -- that a public review of what the government should make public is absolutely essential.
But the minister doesn't see this, and her bureaucrats don't either.
In response, Liberal Ontario MP John Bryden, eight other Liberal backbenchers and five opposition party MPs are holding their own set of public hearings in late August. They believe that a review conducted in part behind closed doors by civil servants simply can't serve the public -- and most Canadians would agree.
The whole review process is also marred by the perception that Ottawa might actually try to weaken the law.
That was the suggestion a few weeks ago by federal Information Commissioner John Reid, who told a conference that Ottawa politicians and bureaucrats want changes that would seal more documents, limit the number of requests that individuals can make, and increase fees and response times.
There is always going to be bureaucratic resistance to the idea of freedom of information, but that must not be allowed to carry the day. This is important legislation, used at times to reveal information that the government would prefer us not to see.
For example, a study for Health Canada showed that there can be no assurances that Canadians are free of risk from the human form of madcow disease.
A military report warned of debris falling on Canadian soil because of the U.S. missile shield program. An internal Ottawa report found it cost taxpayers $16 million extra to provide business-class air travel to thousands of civil servants.
Those reports were all obtained under the Access to Information law.
Proposals for changes to the act include covering Crown corporations, which are now exempt.
Think of what more might have been revealed in the Shawinigate "affaire-Grand-mere" involving Prime Minister Jean Chretien if the Federal Business Development Bank had been included in the legislation?
Not included now are are such important institutions as Canada Post, the CBC and NavCan, the government company supervising air traffic controllers.
The current government review is not an open, transparent process -- involving as it does a series of consultations with groups selected by civil servants at series of in-camera round table discussions.
The federal Public Policy Forum has released on a Web site its version of these consultations. But these are versions edited by bureaucrats.
More open is the posting of written submissions from the public on the Web site. "We have been as open as possible," says task force spokesperson Chantal Scarlett.
Using the Internet's technology does open the debate up somewhat and Ottawa should be commended for that initiative. But not everyone uses the Internet. There really are no substitutes for all-party public hearings that anyone can attend and that the media are freely allowed to report on.
Certainly, no changes to the act should be passed without a full airing -- in public with as many interested people as possible.