Friday, August 23, 2013

Op-Ed: Ontario’s information isn’t free

Published in today's Ottawa Citizen

All of us living in Ontario are well aware of the numerous political fiascos attributed to the current Ontario government. There were the gas plants cancellations done for political gain, followed by the deletion of emails to hide what went on with those cancellations, to name but two.

There is another, perhaps more fundamental legacy this government will leave us, that for the most part has gone completely unnoticed. Yet it probably affects each and every one of us on a far more personal level than those mentioned above.
It involves our ability to know what our government is doing, and how much money they spend doing it. This situation, if allowed to continue, could prevent us from knowing how much the government spends on future debacles.
For the lay man and woman like myself, one of the few tools we have to participate in the democratic process is through access to information requests. Within certain parameters, like not being able to see any personal information, all citizens in a democracy like Canada can see government documents by doing Access to Information and Privacy requests for federal information or provincially in Ontario, by Freedom of Information requests.
As a pro-life blogger, I frequently do ATIPs and FOIs of various government departments and ministries. I find out myriad facts about abortion, then comment on my blog about what I have learned, becoming part of the new media.
In March 2012 I sent an FOI request to the Ontario Ministry of Health, looking for abortion statistics. I was surprised when my request was denied, since all my previous FOI requests had been granted. It is important to emphasize that I was asking for aggregate information only. I was not asking for any personal data like patients’ names, doctors’ names or even hospital names.
I asked for totals of abortions performed, and dollars billed by doctors for the “Medical management of non-viable fetus or intra-uterine fetal demise between 14 and 20 weeks gestation … broken down by hospitals, clinics, and physicians’ office.”
I learned that, between my latest request and my previous request, that the government had quietly slipped a clause into the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that would exclude abortion services from all future FOIs.
This in itself was troubling, but what was worse was that all my subsequent research indicated that there had been no debate in the legislature, no opposition party flag-raising, and no public consultations on the change.
The reason it was done has never been satisfactorily explained by the government, except to say the information was “highly sensitive.” My guess is that they felt the subject was just too controversial, so we should be prevented from knowing how many abortions are being performed and at what cost. Remember that abortions are paid for by taxpayers. Regardless of whether one is pro-life or pro-choice, shouldn’t all of us know how and where our tax dollars are being spent?
The whole thing seemed rather Orwellian to me.

I appealed the government’s decision to hide these statistics to the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner. I lost the appeal and was left with two choices: I either drop the case or I could ask for a judicial review.
I chose the latter. This means I am taking the Ontario government to court.
I will ask the court to review, among other points, the following: did the IPC fail to consider and address my rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — in particular, my Charter right to freedom of expression? And was the effect of the IPC’s interpretation of the exclusion clause a violation of the principle of open government?
The implications of this change to FIPPA could have significant ramifications to taxpayers in the future. It raises the troubling question: if the government can at the stroke of a pen exclude abortion services from our scrutiny, what else might they exclude in the future? What about the costs of those cancelled gas plants? Maybe they would put in an exclusion clause for that next time. In fact, anything at all that the government decides is too controversial could be the subject of potential exclusion clauses.
I am hopeful that I win the case. It would be a win for all of us.
Here is what former Canadian information commissioner John Reid said about access to information:
After I had been confirmed as federal Information Commissioner, I met with the former Commissioner, John Grace, to get his advice. One thing he said struck me in particular; he said that in his seven years as Privacy Commissioner and eight years as Information Commissioner (a total of 15 years spent reviewing the records which government wanted to withhold from Canadians) he hadn’t seen a really good secret. My experience is much the same over the first year of my term. For the most part, officials love secrecy because it is a tool of power and control, not because the information they hold is particularly sensitive by nature.

No comments:

Post a Comment