While Canadian and American journalists often lament the annual slow news days in late December and early January—when legislatures have risen and everyone else is at home—reporters in the United Kingdom never want for stories at that time of year.
In the past month, British journalists have carried out the ritualistic writing of stories about 30-year-old Cabinet documents. So far this year, we have learned about the effect of the Brighton bombing on the Anglo-Irish agreement, a plan to make secret cuts to the Scottish budget and a plan—never implemented—to bring in the army to mitigate the effects of the 1984 miners’ strike.
These historical treasure troves are the result of the “30-year rule,” which stipulates that Cabinet records are transferred to the National Archives after 30 years. The Archives not only unseals the documents, but also publishes them online for all to see; last year, there was even a podcast with highlights from the unsealed papers. (And the 30-year rule is on its way to becoming a 20-year rule.)
Canada has something like the 30-year rule, but it’s relatively toothless. Cabinet records are excluded from the Access to Information Act (ATIA), under section 69, but that exclusion expires after 20 years.
Unlike in the U.K., where 30-year-old cabinet documents see the light of day as soon as the clock is up, Canada’s 20-year rule only means that the records can be obtained via an ATI request.
So last November, when freedom-of-information expert Stanley Tromp wrote an article for The Canadian Press about debates in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet over abortion, he had to file two ATI requests. If he wanted to write the same story about Thatcher’s cabinet, he could have just gone to the National Archives’s website.
It used to be standard practice for the Privy Council Office to give Library and Archives Canada the documents for publication after 30 years*, but as Postmedia reported last year, that transfer is backlogged by about six years.
Have we mentioned that Canada’s access-to-information regime ranks 56th in the world?
As Tromp described in detail in Fallen Behind: Canada’s Access to Information Act in the Global Context (see chapter 8), there have been calls for Parliament to amend the 20-year rule for more than 25 years.
Some have called for the exclusion to be shortened, to 15 years or even to 10 years (which is the rule in Nova Scotia). Others have called for the blanket rule to be replaced with a case-by-case exemption, and for such exemptions to be subject to court review. But, Tromp told the Review, the information commissioner has not made reviewing the cabinet exclusion a priority.
If calls for reform from multiple parliamentary committees, the Gomery Commission, two former information commissioners and the treasury board secretariat have fallen on deaf ears, it’s not a certainty that another proposal from the information commissioner would even make much of a difference.
If the Privy Council Office were to clear its backlog, journalists would be able to search, read and download cabinet documents from later than 1976.
And if the 20-year rule were to become a 10-year rule, Cabinet records from the Quebec referendum, the deliberations over the Iraq War, and the aftermath of 9/11 would become subject to the act—and certain fodder for stories that offer a glimpse into the inner workings of government.
*It’s unclear whether that practice was required through a regulation, or just something the PCO did voluntarily. We’ve asked LAC to clarify and will update when we hear back.