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Alberta’s Access to Information Problems Absent from Campaign Trail

This article originally appeared on Sean Holman's Unknowable Country.

Alberta’s freedom of information law is weak and underused. Yet, in an election where one of the most important issues is government accountability, there has been surprisingly little discussion about reforming that law — despite a proposed policy change that could further threaten the public’s right to know.

Alberta has historically been a stranger to freedom of information legislation, which allows access to internal government documents. That access is important because the public can then find out things the officials they elect and the institutions they pay for don’t want them to find out.

But, according to the Globe and Mail, Peter Lougheed — Alberta’s premier between 1971 and 1985 — claimed such legislation was unnecessary because his was one of North America’s most open administrations. His successor Don Getty also rejected and later delayed introducing an access law, stating government information was already “made available by the wheelbarrow loads” in the legislature.

“We mail it to people. It’s provided on a day-to-day basis,” he added.

But there were many outside government who disputed such claims. For example, in 1992, the Calgary Herald reported the Association of Alberta Taxpayers delivered 20,000 coupons to Getty’s office “from individual citizens demanding an information law.”

At the time, association spokesperson Kevin Avram was quoted by the newspaper as saying, “The most difficult government to get information from is right here in Edmonton.”

Getting that information became easier when Ralph Klein’s government finally introduced a freedom of information law in April 1994, making the province the second to last jurisdiction in North America to do so.

But it remains an access laggard.

According to a 2012 report from the Centre for Law and Democracy, Alberta tied with New Brunswick and the federal government for having the worst freedom of information law in the country. In that report, the centre stated the loopholes in Alberta’s legislation create “enormous amount of wiggle room for recalcitrant public officials who would seek to avoid disclosure of embarrassing information.”

In addition, it costs $25 just to file a freedom of information request in Wildrose Country. In Canada, the two territories are the only other jurisdictions with that high of an application fee. And that price tag doesn’t include the additional costs often associated with actually obtaining those records.

I can’t help but think that Alberta’s application fee is one reason why the province’s access law is so underused.

According to the most recent statistics available, in fiscal 2012/13 Alberta government ministries received 60 general freedom of information requests per 100,000 people in the province. By comparison, in Ontario, where the application fee for those requests is $5, that number was 87 in 2012. And, in British Columbia, where there is no charge, that number was 106 in 2012/13.

But, troublingly, Premier Jim Prentice has a plan that could further suppress such access requests in Alberta even further.

Right now, an individual who files a freedom of information request is the only one who receives the records responsive to it. That means reporters and others can get scoops from making those requests — a reward for the considerable time, effort and sometimes money spent on them.

But, in February, CBC News revealed the premier moved to take those scoops away by “personally” ordering government to post responses online for everyone to see, including competing reporters. And if you don’t think that’s a disincentive, just think how you would feel if someone else could constantly claim credit for work you were responsible for.

Prentice’s order has yet to be carried out.

Nevertheless, it’s another reason why opposition parties should be promising to reform the province’s freedom of information legislation, a law that’s benefitted them during the election campaign.

For example, thanks to that law, Wildrose found out the government had spent more than $950 million on sole-source contracts in fiscal 2013/14. Similarly, the Alberta NDP learned of “skyrocketing” ambulance service delays in Calgary and Edmonton.

Both revelations were used to attack the Tories on the campaign trail, where — according to a telephone survey of 758 Albertans conducted for CBC News by the polling firm Return On Insight — accountability is the second most important issue for voters.

Yet the platforms for the Alberta Party, the NDP and the Alberta Liberals don’t include a word about strengthening the province’s freedom of information law. Only Wildrose’s platform promises such a change, while the Greens have a plank that commits them to a “radical overhaul of rules around transparency and accountability.”

Nor have journalists talked much about the need for reform either, perhaps because they believe too many believe Canadians don’t care about that issue — a self-defeating notion, even if it may sometimes be a truthful one.

But what all this amounts to is, at the very least, a missed opportunity to change that indifference, raising awareness among Albertans about why their information rights are important and how those rights can prevent another 44 years of unaccountable governments in this province.

Image Credit: Charlotte Kinzie via Flickr

Sean Holman is an assistant professor of journalism at Mount Royal University, documentary filmmaker and the founding editor of the…

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