Amended freedom of information law delays access to budget data

Details of how the Progressive Conservative government plans to spend money in its budget have now been hidden from public view for months, thanks to changes to the Freedom of Information Act.

An Act to amend the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, passed a year ago, stipulates that ministerial documents must not be made public until 60 days after the adoption of the budget (presented spring) by the Legislative Assembly (not until late fall).

Budget information that was available to the public — and the opposition tasked with holding the government to account — is now withheld until the end of the year.

Buried in the regulations of the 2021 FIPPA bill is a section that prevents anyone from accessing information in a minister’s spending estimates book. The book contains answers to questions about a department’s programs that the minister can expect to be asked when he appears before the appropriations committee that reviews spending.

Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen, who introduced the bill in 2020, was unavailable for comment on Friday.

Simply getting the table of contents from an expense book can provide the opposition with information on where to probe and what to ask, said NDP Finance Critic Mark Wasyliw.

“It would give us information that we could then file more FIPPA requests that we have targeted because we could see that there is an area that we need to investigate and explore,” he said on Friday, citing two recent examples.

A freedom of information request in January 2021, requesting the Ministry of Education’s comparison of school division spending with provincial funding, was granted in March. It showed a 0.3% decrease in funding in 2020-21.

In June 2021, a request for a Table of Contents of the Minister of Infrastructure’s Expenditure Book revealed a cost increase of $67 million for the Lake St. Martin and Lake Manitoba flood canals project .

In May, a freedom of information request for the table of contents to the 2022 appropriations committee was denied.

The province cited the section of the new FIPPA law which states that the government has 60 days from the passage of the budget (expected in November) to provide any departmental records.

“One of the main jobs of the official opposition is to hold the government to account,” Wasyliw said. “We need information to question the government and constructively challenge what it is doing.”

Manitoba’s ombudsman, who has the power to enforce access to information legislation by reviewing the decisions of public bodies and investigating complaints from citizens, raised further concerns about the proposed FIPPA legislation before it was passed, some of which have been resolved.

In a letter to Goertzen in April 2021, Jill Perron said the bill expands the grounds for not meeting or extending the time limit for responding to an access request. It would allow a public body to refuse a request deemed “unduly repetitive or systematic” or “excessively broad” or that it considers “insignificant, frivolous or vexatious”.

Perron complained that waiting 10 years for a full public review of the legislation was too long; the government responded by increasing it to five years.

The legislation increases the time limit for responding to a request for information from 30 days to 45 days and specifies that a request can be considered abandoned if the person making the request does not provide the requested information necessary to process the request.

It has also simplified the process for correcting personal information and required individuals are notified if there is a real risk that they will suffer material harm as a result of a privacy breach involving personal information.

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people who call Manitoba home, Carol joined the office of the Legislative Assembly in early 2020.