What a difference an election makes. Just five short months ago Stephen Harper was on the campaign trail, apparently sincerely indignant about entrenched Ottawa secrecy. Now as Prime Minister, he has executed an accountability flip-flop that would give an Olympic gymnast whiplash.
The “Federal Accountability Act”, the cornerstone of Harper’s successful election campaign, was revealed last month as a not only a sham, but a dangerous step backwards for government transparency.
This scathing critique came from none other than the federal Information Commissioner John Reid, the man who holds the duty of reporting to parliament on the issue.
In a town known for it’s bureaucratic doublespeak, Reid was refreshing frank: "No previous government has put forward a more retrograde and dangerous set of proposals to change the Access to Information Act.”
Instead of increasing government accountability and transparency, Commissioner Reid said this highly hyped bill will instead "reduce the amount of information available to the public, weaken the role of the information commissioner and increase the government's ability to cover up wrongdoing, shield itself from embarrassment and control the flow of information to Canadians."
Not exactly a ringing endorsement from the official government overseer on transparency issues. Why is Reid so outraged?
The new act adds fully ten new exemptions for the government to refuse public access to documents – eight of which would allow bureaucrats to withhold documents without providing any reason, or without any provision for a public interest over-ride. Bureaucrats are also not obligated to create records that could later be requested by the public. Draft audits will not be released for 15 years. Documents relating to investigations of government wrongdoing would be sealed forever.
Harper is also seeking to exclude documents from the PMO or minister offices from the pesky information requests altogether. According to Reid, “it is clear that the government is seeking to find a way to appear to give a right of access to records held in the PMO and ministers’ offices, without actually doing so.”
Lets try and peel back the onion-layers of irony in all this. Harper shrewdly campaigned and won on an agenda of cleaning up Ottawa corruption. He pledged to the Canadian electorate that the passage of a meaningful accountability act was his number-one priority. Many Canadians, myself included, strongly supported rooting out Ottawa rot and implementing sweeping changes to increase government transparency and public access to information.
This makes the recent revelations not merely disappointing, but alarming. In the words of Commissioner Reid, “the new government has done exactly the things for which its predecessor had been ridiculed…All of the positions the government now takes in the discussion paper are contrary to the positions the Conservative Party took, and its leader espoused, during the election campaign.”
It seems that federal conservatives were subscribing to the “Big Lie” school of public discourse in the last election. Rather than creating a new covenant of openness, the bill appears instead to be a Trojan horse to significantly increase the potential for governments to indulge in secrecy and arrogance.
What has been lost in this deception is the opportunity to finally entrench a culture of honesty and transparency in Ottawa. As became abundantly clear under the Liberals, all governments have a finite shelf life before unseemly ethical rot sets in. Meaningful safeguards of public access to information are critical to avoid the need for tawdry spectacles like the Gomery Inquiry.
In contrast, Harper has revealed an almost paranoid fixation on concealing information from the public in general, and from the media in particular. More troubling still is the resemblance of what is happening here to the wholesale erosion of information rights south of the border. This does not bode well for avoiding future scandals, or for protecting the underpinnings of our free and open society. In the words of US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
Protecting information rights is like doing the dishes – its a chore that never ends, but you don’t want to stop doing it either. Commissioner Reid deserves our thanks and gratitude for his courageous frankness. Now it falls on the Canadian public to ensure that we do not meekly allow the government to take away our information rights, while deceiving us in the process.
Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.