Accountability must come first in Access to Information debate

a/Editorial/Opinion by

A fundamental pillar for the success of a publicly funded institution is the public’s right to know and understand where its money goes, and what is being done with it. McGill’s recent motion to the Commission d’accès à l’information seeking the authority to ignore Access To Information (ATI) requests threatens this right, and risks severely compromising the school’s accountability to students and staff, and to taxpayers in general. As a media outlet, the Tribune firmly believes in the importance of a fair and functional ATI process. We feel that were the university’s motion to be approved outright, it would set a dangerous precedent and concentrate excessive power in the hands of the administration.

While we disagree with the broad implications of McGill’s request, various aspects of this issue stirred much debate amongst members of our editorial board. We felt that certain grievances brought forward by the administration are legitimate, but the school’s response has been equally problematic. The claims brought forward in the university’s motion do not justify the severity of the course of action being pursued.

McGill claims that its recent backlog of ATI requests is the product of a deliberate and coordinated attack on the school “as a retaliation measure against McGill in the aftermath of the 2011-2012 student protests.” If a conscious effort to hamstring the administration is really being undertaken, then this is also extremely worrisome. Money spent needlessly compiling thousands of pages of documents is money that will never reach a classroom, and such action benefits no one. However, these allegations on the part of the school amount to speculation at best, and the proposed solution could also put a stop to well-intentioned requests. We feel that when freedoms and liberties are at stake, people must be given the benefit of the doubt.

Another complaint put forward in McGill’s motion pertains to the nature of the requests, stating that they are frivolous, repetitive, or too broad in scope. Once again, there is a fair argument to be made to this effect; spending excessive amounts of time disclosing the contents of fridges prevents the administration from making more effective use of its resources. However, other topics outlined in the motion include corporate ties in fossil fuels and weapons research, as well as breaches of privacy. These are some of the issues that matter, and under this motion, it would be entirely within the university’s purview to avoid them altogether. Giving an institution the ability to decide what is and isn’t important to disclose directly enables it to dodge accountability in the future.

In addition to seeking to reject ATI requests based on their topics, the motion outlines a specific list of individuals whose requests it seeks to disregard. Moreover, its broad terms include student journalists, all McGill students, and anybody the administration feels “could reasonably be linked” to any of the above. The lack of clarity here and the resulting level of arbitrary power on the part of the school are both extremely troubling, and would further put McGill in a position to extensively limit what can or cannot be disclosed; in essence, the passage of this motion would allow McGill to become its own arbiter.

Rather than pursue such a dire course of action, we feel that the university should be willing to invest in  necessary infrastructure that would facilitate responses to such queries. The Government of Canada is currently in the process of implementing an online repository of previously disclosed files, to which duplicate queries can be referred. A similar system would also help to alleviate strain on the university. While this would be an investment on the part of the school, it is one which would serve to bolster the rights of the McGill community, and encourage institutional accountability.

Nevertheless, the motion has not yet moved beyond its submission state. It seems unlikely that McGill will be granted its desired level of freedom in this domain, but the request itself is clearly indicative of the administration’s attitude towards the issue. Although the pressure that an increased number of ATI requests puts on the administration may not be sustainable, it is important, as we move forward to ensure that our rights are valued above all else.