Politics

No Accountability Without Access to Information

By Ryan McGreal
Published December 12, 2008

this blog entry has been updated

What is it with governments that they inevitably end up arrogant, authoritarian and secretive?

The Globe and Mail reports that a lawyer representing the Ontario Government just testified to the Supreme Court of Canada that freedom of government information is a privilege, not a right, and governments would be justified in eliminating all freedom of information provisions.

The lawyer, Daniel Guttman, spoke on the government's behalf in a case on whether citizens have the right to access government information. The information in question is a police report on the bungled prosecution of gangster Dominic Racco's alleged killers.

Graham Court and Dennis Monaghan were convicted in 1991 of murdering Racco but walked free in 1997 after a judge ruled that the evidence against them was tainted by "flagrant and intentional misconduct" by police and Crown attorneys.

The Ontario Provincial Police investigated the case and prepared a 318-page report. They released a brief statement absolving the police and Crown but never made the report or its evidence public, citing an exception under Ontario freedom of information law for confidential law enforcement documents.

The Ontario Criminal Lawyers Association, supported by the Canadian Newspaper Association, has spent nearly a decade fighting to gain access to the report and, more generally, to establish a legal basis establishing citizen access to government documents where there is a "compelling public interest" for the information to be made public.

Guttman, the Provincial lawyer, told the Supreme Court that a ruling enforcing citizen access to government documents would set a dangerous precedent regarding the right of free expression.

Opponents to access to information laws argue that it introduces a chill on free expression for consultants asked by the government to prepare analyses or recommendations if there is a chance the documents will be made public. This, in turn, would constrain the range of options available to the government.

But the Criminal Lawyers Association acknowledges this in seeking a ruling that citizens would have the right to access any federal or provincial government document only where a "compelling public interest" overrides the case for confidentiality.

The court has reserved its decision for now, but the larger issue remains: why should the government ever have permission to hide evidence of its own incompetence, negligence or malice from the public?

If citizens can't discover what the government is doing, there can be no democratic accountability for the government's actions. And as we've seen again and again, power without accountability is a perfect recipe for gross and escalating abuses.

Update: Graham Court and Dennis Monaghan were convicted in 1991 of murdering Racco, not Guttman. Thanks to Pedant for pointing out the error. The changed paragraph is here.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By Pedant (anonymous) | Posted December 12, 2008 at 16:01:55

"Graham Court and Dennis Monaghan were convicted in 1991 of murdering Guttman"

I think you mean "of murdering Racco" ...

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 12, 2008 at 16:22:55

Pedant, you're absolutely right. Thanks for pointing that out. I've updated the article with the correction.

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By Grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted December 12, 2008 at 22:05:15

Ryan: you bring up an old age question that has elude mankind for centuries. I guess it depends on what your views are on truth and justice.

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