4 min

Bill Siksay on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics

I had a chance to sit down with NDP MP Bill Siksay this morning, and get an update on how things are going in his new committee this session.

Q: How are things going in Ethics committee? I keep reading interesting tales in Kady O’Malley’s blog.
A: For me, trying to get up to speed in that is interesting, and there’s lots of issues there. We’re looking at Access to Information now, and the need for reform and amendments to the legislation. We haven’t had significant amendments since the bill was first brought in, and there are lots of important issues there. The committee has said that it’s going to back and look at the In and Out stuff, although it’s pretty limited what the committee’s mandate would be around that, but we’ll probably resume that later in the spring. Privacy – we’re continuing our study of the Privacy Act as well, because it has been much delayed, and we need changes there. One of the interesting issues for me has been around the Olympics, and the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and BC both raised concerns about dismantling the surveillance infrastructure that’s being put into place for the Olympics – all of the closed-circuit television cameras around the venues and in the communities that are hosting Olympic events. I think that’s a huge issue for Vancouver, for Whistler, for other communities of the need to take apart that surveillance infrastructure, to take down those cameras after the Olympics. That kind of surveillance may be appropriate for a big international event, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for everyday life in a Canadian city, and I don’t want to see us go the way of Britain and some places in the United States that have this constant surveillance of ordinary citizens at all times. They say that in downtown London, you can be on camera three hundred times a day, which is from the infrastructure that’s there, and I just think that’s an invasion of privacy – I think that’s a civil liberties issue. So apparently right now there’s no provision for dismantling that, there’s nothing in the budgets to do that. Apparently the leases will be available to continue after the Olympics, and that’s something that I’ll certainly be following.

Q: In terms of Access to Information, I know the Information Commissioner was talking about a “crisis of information management.” I’m wondering if you can say a little more about that.
A: In his report card, he said that the problem was at the highest levels of government, and when you ask him he’s very blunt – that’s cabinet minister, that’s the Prime Minster’s Office – that there’s no commitment to ensuring that people have easy access to information about how the government does its work. President Obama – his first executive order was to call for a generous interpretation of Freedom of Information in the United States, and a whole new commitment to making sure that people had access to what their government was doing, whereas in Canada, we have exactly the opposite commitment. We have perhaps increased secrecy on the part of government, and the commissioner’s been very clear that we need political leadership to change that atmosphere, and we’re not getting it. I think it’s dramatic when you look at the Conservatives’ election platform in 2006, when they were first elected, had an incredibly detailed and extensive commitment around access to information and what needed to be changed, a commitment to the draft bill that former Information Commissioner Reid had put together, that the NDP has tabled ever since then. But it was a very extensive platform document, and they’ve done next to nothing about it. There were a few changes related to the Accountability Act, but nothing nearly in the scope that they themselves had promised. They need to get back on that agenda and bring in those. They need to remember why, when they were in opposition, this was so important, and they need to get over this big government secrecy trend that they’ve adopted whole-heartedly.

Q: His criticism tends to be aimed at the higher levels – what about the lower levels of the civil service where you have managers who say “let the Archivist deal with it” rather than actually doing something with the information they have.
A: Well there is a whole question around information management in government, whether records are even being kept, and what information is being kept, and there is an issue around the Archives Act that should be looked at again in light of technological change and those kinds of things. But I think that the Information Commissioner’s right – without leadership from the top, those lower-level managers are in no position to do anything about it. They don’t have the resources, they don’t have the direction. They might be completely committed to it, but without the staff, without the money to do the job, and without the records to manage, they can’t do it. So if you don’t have that leadership, you can’t get forward. There are some success stories – he pointed to the Ministry of Justice for having cleaned up their act, and he attributes that to political leadership. I really do believe that’s the crucial piece that’s missing in that.

Q: You’re still championing the whole Cadman issue. What’s your next step for that?
A: I’m looking for the next angle on it. We’ve gone on why did they enter into this secret agreement and would they let the terms of that out – and they refused on that. We asked them to apologise to Zytaruk, the journalist who they thoroughly trashed and accused of doctoring the tapes that he made of his interview with the Prime Minister when we know their own experts have said that the crucial part of the tape wasn’t doctored. We’ve gone on why did the Prime Minister fire his lawyer in the lawsuit, and would he explain why he did that or would he let the lawyers speak to that? We’ve gone on would the Prime Minister’s Office and the government produce all the documents that they would have had to if the lawsuit had gone forward, and they’re refused to do that. So we’re looking for another angle, and I don’t know what that is yet, but I’m still working on that – I haven’t given up.