Ditto for cabinet ministers including the prime minister — their offices are completely off-limits.

Harper's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, apparently generated considerable paperwork (now in the hands of the RCMP) surrounding the controversial $90,000 personal cheque he cut to Duffy.

But not one page of that is available to the public under access laws as long as that information remains within the Prime Minister's Office, which is exempt.

So if Wright sent Duffy an email about the payment, that correspondence would be exempt from public scrutiny at both ends.

Then there is the growing problem of empty files where, like the Senate-scandal information the CBC requested, a printed record officially "does not exist."

For years, federal information commissioners have been calling, to no avail, for new regulations that would make it mandatory for government officials to generate records of their activities.

Instead, there is much evidence that the bureaucracy and political staff are increasingly conducting their business verbally without retaining notes, often exchanging correspondence through private email addresses and digital systems that are largely untraceable.

System in crisis

It's possible that some of the Senate-related documents we were after did exist, but were destroyed or hidden to prevent their release.

The Access to Information Act provides penalties up to two years in jail for destroying, altering or concealing government documents. But no one has ever been tossed in the slammer for that, and critics say the penalties simply aren't taken seriously.

In 2006, the newly elected Stephen Harper government rode into office promising a complete overhaul of the access laws. More specifically, it undertook to implement the recommendations of then information commissioner John Reid who warned the access system was in crisis.

Instead, the government ditched Reid as commissioner, and shelved his recommendations.

Three years later, Reid's successor sounded the same dire alarm, calling the state of the access-to-information system "grim."

Then information commissioner Robert Marleau reported that in spite of the Harper government's cornerstone pledge of open and accountable government, "there is less information being released … than ever before, and that is alarming."

Like Reid, Marleau issued a widely praised report with a dozen specific recommendations to rescue the access system. And, as with Reid, the government ignored Marleau's report until the information commissioner quit in apparent frustration.

Marleau's successor, the current information commissioner, Suzanne Legault, has been ringing the same bell, warning that the public's essential right to government documents "is at risk of being totally obliterated."

Like her predecessors, her pleas are largely being ignored by the Harper government.

The Supreme Court once stated: "The overarching purpose of access to information legislation is to facilitate democracy by helping to ensure … that politicians and bureaucrats remain accountable to the citizenry."

If Canadians ever find out the truth about the Senate scandal, it almost certainly won't be through their legal right to access government documents.

So far, about all that's holding the Senate and Harper administration accountable are Mounties armed with warrants.
National Affairs Specialist Greg Weston is an investigative reporter for CBC and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio. As a national affairs columnist based in Ottawa, he has afflicted governments of all stripes for over three decades. His investigative work has won awards including the coveted Mitchner Award for Meritorius Public Service in Journalism. He is also the author of two best-selling books, Reign of Error and The Stopwatch gang.