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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Canada and Australia share cultural heritage.

There are parallels in many fields between Australia and Canada.This wisdom from Professor Michel Drapeau of the University of Ottawa, writing in Open Government Volume 5, No 1 (2009) about the implementation of the Access to Information Act at the Federal Government level has a familiar ring for Australians:
"The most obvious lesson learned is that the mere existence of an access statute does not, in and of itself, guarantee access to information. Unless there is a firm, manifest and unequivocal political will to make the statute work; a dutiful commitment on the part of the highest echelons of the Public Service to show respect for this quasi-constitutional right of the citizenry; and, an Ombudsman with both the powers and the capacity to police and discipline the process by investigating complaints on the part of the users in a timely fashion, the access system will not work."
Professor Drapeau says the three pre-conditions are absent in Canada today and these and other factors including a two year delay in investigation of complaints by the Information Commisioner highlight the enduring problem of public service culture:
"There is no panacea in making open and accountable government a reality. Given the existence of a deep-rooted culture of secrecy within the Canadian Public Service, what is required and hoped for by the Canadian democracy, particularly in the wake of the Gomery Inquiry, is not only more transparency but a shift in culture to bring about the essential change in attitude from the civil service on the related issues of record-keeping, archiving and disclosing of government information as well as adherence with the existing principles and spirit of the Access to Information Act."
As our government ponders an election commitment to create one,Professor Drapeau offers some timely advice about the qualities needed in an information commmissioner:
"One thing is certain, however, a cultural change of this magnitude does not happen overnight in government institutions unless changes are led from the very top. And, leading the charge for such a cultural change must be Parliament’s appointed Champion of Access, the Information Commissioner. Regrettably, however, at present that position appears untenanted.In his new job,( the Commissioner) Mr. Marleau is, quite naturally, relying on the very qualities and characteristics that gave him long and successful tenure as the Clerk of the House of Commons. But, history has shown that the Information Commissioner requires a different skill set. The Office of the Information Commissioner requires someone who is unafraid to stand up to the mandarins and, where required, someone who has the fortitude to take a position critical of his elected masters. That is the very nature of the job."

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