The Toronto Star June 15, 1999

EDITORIAL – Harris should rid government secrecy

With a victorious Premier Mike Harris deciding the kind of
government he’ll offer next term, Information and Privacy
Commissioner Ann Cavoukian has issued a timely report.

Cavoukian finds ample room for more openness. But openness
isn’t what she found in 1998.

Which will it be post-election?

Any doubt about the importance of openness was removed by the government’s admission, last week, that arsenic is poisoning the old gold mining town of Deloro, near Madoc. The environment ministry never told residents that arsenic in the soil, home-
grown vegetables and the dust is 30 times what’s healthy. Now, lawsuits loom.

But Cavoukian found an even more pervasive problem – bad service.  The province answers 42 per cent of information requests in 30 days, against 84 per cent by municipalities. In part, that’s a legacy of staff cuts – also blamed by the Ombudsman for bad service.

But service would be slower still if excessive fees didn’t discourage many from even asking.  If he wants, Harris can use Cavoukian’s report as a basis for better service and lower fees. More staff cuts will tell us, however, that the door is closing.

The report, unfortunately, is less helpful to the public than to Harris. That’s because Cavoukian reveals the departments doing well but not the ones doing badly.

The Ministry of Labour, for example, is doing well in answering 70 per cent of requests in 30 days.  Presumably – because she doesn’t mention them – the environment and health and solicitor-general’s ministries all are doing badly.

These three, plus labour, get 76 per cent of all the public’s information requests. To drag the average down to 42 per cent from the labour ministry’s 70 per cent rating means the worst could be hitting deadlines only once in six requests.

But Cavoukian won’t say which is worst. Too bad. It doesn’t become information commissioners to withhold information, and tar the merely mediocre with the same brush as the utterly appalling.

She says the numbers – bad and good – will be published next year. Harris, meanwhile, can find out where the fixes are needed, even if the public can’t. Cavoukian also set out other needed fixes, such as Harris’ 1995 Labour Relations Act. It contains such broad exemptions to access to information laws that employees can be denied their own retirement records.

She is unhappy the public can’t get safety records for elevators, amusement rides and gasoline handling. An independent corporation now inspects them. “The important public safety issues have not changed, so why shouldn’t the public continue to have access to these records?”

And she hits the government for exempting two of five companies replacing Ontario Hydro from information and privacy laws.

What will Harris do? His response will be a telling comment on how open and accountable he thinks his government has to be with another majority in hand.