In this era, it’s easier to access porn than it is to access information about government activity. It’s cheaper too. While most porn is free, requesting information through the Access to Information Act costs $5. Worse yet, people who pay the $5 often still have to wait for the information they want—sometimes for longer than a month. The reason for the delay, according to Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault is that her office cannot handle the rapidly growing number of information requests since their budget is shrinking. Surely there must be a way to solve this problem and grant Canadians timely access to information.
Speaking before a Commons committee, Legault suggested that the government should dedicate more resources to processing access to information requests and associated complaints. She also suggested that the government could improve access to information by either making more information available or eliminating the $5 fee for access requests. This way, more people would be able to learn about what the government is actually doing, instead of just what it wants them to know it is doing. It seems like a pretty effective and straightforward solution.
The government sort of agreed. Conservative MPs acknowledged that the access to information program could use more funding, but decided that the funding should come straight out of peoples’ pockets. Conservative MP Erin O’Toole admittedly “pulled number[s] out of thin air” when he suggested that individual requests could cost up to $25 while journalist and corporate requests could cost as much as $200. It is clearly a superior solution.
If the goal is to improve access to information, the best way to do this is obviously to increase the cost of accessing information. This could make information what economists call a luxury good: a good for which, counter-intuitively, demand increases as price increases. In this case, people would be willing to shell out more and more for access to information. As a result, the program would have enough money and people would have a solid understanding of what happens on Parliament Hill. It sounds perfect if not for two little details: (1) government information is neither a luxury good nor a status symbol, and (2) the fees wouldn’t fund the program.
The big problem with the idea of increasing fees, as Legault aptly noted, is that money from fees is paid into general revenues, not directly to the Information Commissioner’s office. There is no guarantee that she would see a dime of that money. Is there anything she can do?
Treasury Board President Tony “The Border Decongestant” Clement said that all Legault has to do is ask for more money: “Every agent of Parliament is responsible for managing the funds that are allocated to them by Parliament. That is part of their role and responsibilities. If any particular agent of Parliament has a problem with that, he or she can make a submission to the Treasury Board.” It was as if the committee meeting and ensuing discussion never happened. Then again, maybe Clement didn’t have access to that information yet. We’ll hear what he really thinks when his receives a reply to his request next month.