DOES HARPER REALLY WANT TIPS FOR LESS SECRECY?

One possible response to Canadians' open government recommendations. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

One possible response to Canadians’ open government recommendations. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

OPEN GOVERNMENT INACTION? Canadians have given the federal government some worthy ideas on how it could be less secretive and more accountable. But some of them seem doubtful those ideas will actually be acted on.

The Harper administration has been consulting with Canadians about what should be in it’s Action Plan on Open Government 2.0 since April.

In addition to recommending reforms to the country’s freedom of information system, other suggestions that have been submitted online or made during in-person meetings have included:

  • establish an online ratings system so Canadians can grade the performance of unelected and elected officials, the institutions they work for and their policies;
  • ensure the preservation of Canada’s “documentary and public policy heritage”; and
  • establish public consultation principles that departments and agencies would have to abide by.

But the government also acknowledged “several comments reflect that the Government of Canada’s commitment to transparency leaves something to be desired.”

You can check all of those suggestions out here.

THE MEDIA’S STAR CANDIDATE Vancouver’s city hall might become a more welcoming place for reporters if former media executive Kirk LaPointe unseats sitting Mayor Gregor Robertson.

LaPointe, who is heading the right-wing Non-Partisan Association slate, is promising to “create the country’s most open, accountable government” should his party win the upcoming November civic election.

That would include a “bylaw requiring the city to disclose information routinely” and permitting city employees to “speak freely to the public.”

Such promises are laudable, especially given recent criticism of the Canadian and American governments for muzzling bureaucrats.

But they also not surprising given that LaPointe, the former managing editor of the Vancouver Sun (disclosure: he was also one of my bosses at that paper), has been a longtime friend of freedom of information.

I’ve personally participated in two panels with him on the subject and, during both, he forcefully championed Canadians’ right to know.

Despite those credentials, though, voters in Vancouver may be wary of LaPointe’s transparency agenda.

After all, in 1999, BC Liberal Party leader Gordon Campbell, the city’s former mayor, told his supporters he would also run “the most open and accountable government in Canada” and ended up doing almost the opposite when he became premier.

THE DEVIL’S IN THE EXEMPTIONS As I and others have written before, Campbell is far from the only political leader who has promised transparency and delivered opacity.

So, in some ways, the better question for a candidate seeking elected office is not what they would do to make government less secretive but when they think such secrecy is necessary.

In other words, when is government justified in withholding information from the citizenry and how does the candidate’s position differ from existing practice?

After all, it’s often those exemptions that have defanged right to know efforts in this country.

I’ve posed that question to LaPointe and will post his reply when he’s had an opportunity to answer.

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

Author’s note: A nasty summer bug kept me from posting last week’s column. My next look at the people, the press and the powerful will be published in two weeks.

OLD NEWS IS STILL NEWS AT POSTMEDIA

The Calgary Herald brings readers last Friday's news on a Wednesday (Graphic by the Calgary Herald)

The Calgary Herald brings readers last Friday’s viral sensation on a Wednesday. (Graphic by the Calgary Herald)

WHEN NEWS IS ALREADY HISTORY “It’s the hottest item. It’s in over 500 papers…Yesterday’s weather reports for people who were drunk and slept all day!”

In the 1976 movie All The President’s Men, Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee laughed at an attempt to sell those reports to his newspaper.

But it’s no laughing matter when, 38-years later, Canadian dailies are publishing their own version what should be a punch line: yesterday’s news reports for people who don’t have an Internet connection.

For example, on July 23, the Calgary Herald fronted the following headline, above-the-fold: “Not tonight, ‘I feel gross’ Frustrated hubby details wife’s rebuffs in sex spreadsheet, she posts it online.”

That post had appeared five-days earlier on Reddit. Gawker Media LLC-owned Website Deadspin published its take on that story shortly after it appeared.

Other outlets followed that lead. And, by the time Herald staff stuck it on their front page, everyone from the Huffington Post to the Guardian had already taken a stab at the story.

As a result, the Calgary newspaper might as well have published an advertisement telling readers and potential readers — especially younger ones — that it is behind the news cycle not ahead of it.

That’s bad. But what’s worse is that a reporter, working at another Postmedia Network Inc.-owned paper, actually wrote that story in the first place.

Telling the public something they already know is not a sustainable business model, especially as advertising revenues decline and newspapers become more reliant on subscribers to make money.

And don’t take my word for it.

Two years ago, USA Today president Larry Kramer proclaimed: “We really can’t survive if all we do is commodity journalism.”

Instead, according to Kramer, the media has to “say things differently” and “help people understand things.”

“Investigative reporting is going to be a huge part of what we do on an ongoing basis, not less but more. But also explanatory journalism, the things that people need.”

Nevertheless, media outlets continue to churn out this kind of “commodity journalism,” presumably, in part, because it’s easy to produce at a time when they have fewer reporters to feed their Websites, publications and broadcasts.

Postmedia’s coverage of the sex spreadsheet story is just an egregious example of the kind of warmed-over, leftovers it needs to stop serving up to the public.

After all, just think of what the reporter who bylined that story could have been doing with the time it took to type it out?

Even 15 minutes is enough time to check a lobbyists registry, file a freedom of information request or phone a source.

In other words, it’s enough time to find a potential story idea the public doesn’t already know about.

It’s enough time to find a potential story idea that hasn’t already been blasted out on social media, in a news release or by another news outlet.

So what, you may say. It’s just 15 minutes.

But writing something that has already been written is not journalism, I say.

And when you have reporters across the country producing “commodity journalism” over and over again, that time adds up.

Yet, sadly, it ultimately will equal nothing…except a punch line that is hurting the news media’s bottom line.

CANADA WON’T BE AN OPEN GOVERNMENT LEADER Critics have repeatedly described the Harper administration as being both dictatorial and secretive — qualities that are inconsistent with the principles of open government.

So it comes as no surprise that the Canadian government, as reported by FreedomInfo.org, “has withdrawn its candidacy to join the Open Government Partnership steering committee.

That committee runs the partnership, a group that is committed to government that is “more transparent, more accountable, and more responsive to their own citizens” and includes 64 participating countries.

A statement provided by the Treasury Board Secretariat to FreedomInfo.org explained Canada’s withdraw this way:

There are many countries looking to participate in the Open Government Partnership Steering Committee. Canada believes this leadership opportunity should be given to countries that will bring new perspectives to the discussion of Open Government, and allow the OGP to strengthen in other parts of the world.

The Government of Canada is confident that the OGP will be very well served by the other candidates to be elected to the Steering Committee through the current process.

BLASTING THE PAST The British Columbia government is condemning its citizens to repeat the past by reducing the chances of them knowing about the past. This week, the province’s information and privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham told the Canadian Press she was “shocked to learn that no government records had been transferred or preserved in the BC Archives for the last 10 years.”

The reason for that negligence: “Government transferred the BC Archives from the province to the Royal British Columbia Museum in 2003. Unfortunately, no money went with the transfer of responsibility and the museum said it could only afford to maintain the existing archives. It put in place a fee of $454 per box to archive new material — a fee no ministry was interested in paying.”

The controversy follows a similar one in Ottawa where, according to Postmedia News, “Canada’s Privy Council Office has stopped releasing 30-year-old federal cabinet records on an annual basis, resulting in a seven-year backlog of archival government material.”

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

JOURNALISTS PUSH BACK AGAINST PR TACTICS

An average Canadian bureaucrat's response to questions from the news media. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

A typical Canadian bureaucrat responds to questions from the news media. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

THE NEWS MEDIA NEEDS UNMEDIATED ACCESS The Canadian Association of Journalists wants Ottawa to “allow civil servants to freely speak to members of the media without interference or involvement from communications staff” — a reform news media representatives in the United States also want their government to adopt.

On June 30, in a letter to Treasury Board President Tony Clement, the Canadian Association of Journalists stated such limitations have been compared to censorship — which would be at odds with the Harper administration’s open government ambitions (disclosure: I drafted and then, as one of the association’s regional directors, co-signed that document).

Now, 46 open government and journalism organizations south of the border are also asking the United States government to remove such restrictions. In a letter sent to President Barack Obama, the groups urged “changes to policies that constrict information flow to the public, including prohibiting journalists from communication with staff without going through public information offices, requiring PIOs to vet interview questions and monitoring interviews between journalists and sources.”

According to the letter, “when journalists cannot interview agency staff, or can only do so under surveillance, it undermines public understanding of, and trust in, government. This is not a ‘press vs. government’ issue. This is about fostering a strong democracy where people have the information they need to self-govern and trust in its government institutions.”

BACK IN THE GOOD ‘OL DAYS Civil servants in the United States and Canada haven’t always been so restricted in speaking with the news media. As an example, the Canadian Association of Journalists cited guidelines issued by then-prime minister Joe Clark in 1979.

Those guidelines stated that talking to reporters “was part of the duties and responsibilities of managers in the public service.”

That directive, which was upheld by Pierre Trudeau when he succeeded Clark as prime minister, was meant to “encourage open and responsive behaviour among public servants in their day-to-day dealings with the public, including particularly members of Parliament and representatives of the news media.”

The Globe and Mail reported those guidelines “made no mention of [civil servants] having to get prior clearance from press officers” to speak with journalists.

So there was a bit of a hue and cry five years later when Clark, as then-prime minister Brian Mulroney’s external affairs minister, tried to forbid his bureaucrats from discussing “’any aspect of policy formulation or implementation or any departmental activity or operation with any member of the media, unless the departmental employee has been designated to do so by the press office. This directive applies to all contacts with the media, including social.”

Soon after that directive became public, it was superseded by a somewhat looser government-wide gag order on civil servants.

THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT? In Canada, as in many other Western democracies, there’s been concern about declining youth voter turnout. But haven’t young people always been less likely to show up to the polls? And aren’t they simply engaged in politics in different ways?

Well, according to Maria Grasso, a lecturer in politics and quantitative methods at the University of Sheffield, the answer is no and no to both those questions in some European countries.

Grasso “applied cutting-edge statistical analysis to data from the European Values Study 1981-2008, which tracked the political activity of individuals born in ten advanced Western European countries, Belgium, Denmark, France, West German, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.” Here’s what she found:

While it’s true that in general younger generations are less likely than older groups to engage with traditional political parties, when it comes to participating in social movement organisations, demonstrating, or signing a petition, the 1960s-70s generation is more active than the 1980s generation, which in turn is more active than the 1990s generation. Coming of age in the radical and ideologically polarised period of the late 60s has left its mark on the 1960s-70s generation. But what this means is that older people are not merely more likely to be involved in formal politics, they are also more engaged with informal politics too.

INFORMATION RIGHTS BLOCK BUSINESS GROWTH? Opponents of openness and accountability often try to thwart Canadians’ right to know by arguing that privacy is a necessity for public and private institution to function properly.

The latest examples comes to us from Hamilton, where there is a proposal that would require those trying to influence city decision-makers to publicly disclose their activities.

That may not seem like a controversial idea. But, in a column for Hamilton Business, Flamborough Chamber of Commerce executive director Arend Kersten questions whether that lobbyist registry — represents another “nail in the coffin of economic development” in the city. Specifically, Kersten states:

Within the context of a global economy, municipalities face fierce competition in the race for new commercial and industrial economic development, complete with additional jobs and tax revenues.

One essential component of that competitive process is absolute confidentiality.

The draft bylaw for the lobbyist registry allows for exemptions (at the sole discretion of the registrar). But many in the “real world” fear those who desire to invest will simply bypass Hamilton for a more business-friendly jurisdiction where absolute confidentiality is a sacred trust.

PRESS PROBES POLITICIAN’S BEDROOM Speaking of privacy, when can journalists invade it if they are reporting on the lives of public officials?

In an interview with Vancouver-based freelancer Bob Mackin, I stated, “It’s too easy to say, ‘Well we don’t want to go down the pathway of the U.K., we don’t want to go down the pathway of the U.S.’” where those lives are on greater public display.

“But we also have to ask what not going down that pathway costs us, because there is a cost and the cost is that some things that should be reported on, may end up unreported.”

You can read Mackin’s full article, which analyzes the controversy over the coverage of Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson’s marital woes, here.

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

Author’s note: Given the slowness of the summer news cycle, I’ll be publishing this column biweekly instead of weekly until September.

TRUDEAU REAPS WHAT HIS FATHER SOWED

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is looking toward giving Canadians more access to government information. (Photograph by MATT HEALY, Matt Healy Photography)

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is looking to give Canadians more access to government information. (Photograph by MATT HEALY, Matt Healy Photography)

THE SINS OF THE FATHER Pierre Trudeau’s government may well have balked at one of Justin Trudeau’s proposed fixes to our country’s broken freedom of information system.

Earlier this month, the younger Trudeau introduced a private member’s bill that would — among other measures — bolster the powers of the federal information commissioner.

Currently, the commissioner can review the government’s Access to Information Act decisions, such as whether it has improperly blacked out material in records requested using that law. But the commissioner has no power to order the government to disclose that material. Instead, such an order must come from the courts.

Trudeau’s private members bill would change that — although the government can ask the courts to review the commissioner’s orders.

But, when his father was in the prime minister’s office, the Liberals seemed to hold a different position.

In the years prior to the passage of the Access to Information Act, the party favoured legislation where cabinet ministers would have the final say on freedom of information decisions. No court appeal would have been possible — let alone a disclosure order from an information commissioner.

Indeed, even in the months prior to the Liberals introducing that Act, the Globe and Mail reported the Trudeau’s cabinet “had not yet decided whether judicial review will be applied in all cases where requests for Government documents are denied.”

But even the possibility of such a review hasn’t been enough to uphold Canadians’ information rights. So the younger Trudeau is now trying to patch up a legislative flaw created by his father’s secretive government.

“A SMALL CONSPIRACY” The Liberals are far from the first opposition party to promise more openness and accountability should they win power in the next election. It’s become a political trope of sorts. But journalists sometimes fail to mention just how often those promises remain unkept or are eventually broken when those parties form government.

In a 1978 column for the Globe and Mail, Geoffrey Stevens described that tendency as “a small conspiracy between the press and politicians.”

According to Stevens, “Opposition parties pretend that, if they were in power, they would do good things that the Government doesn’t want to do, because they are inconvenient or potentially troublesome, politically…For its part, the press pretends that, yes, the opposition parties would actually do these things, given the opportunity.”

But, he added, “We all know they probably wouldn’t, that (at the risk of being cynical) all parties act in much the same way in office.”

Stevens was specifically referring to then Opposition leader Joe Clark’s commitment to freedom of information.

Of course, Clark’s minority government did eventually introduce legislation in support of that principle. But it failed to pass Parliament before his Progressive Conservatives were defeated in the House of Commons.

Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government went on to bring into force a similar piece of legislation. But, since then, Canada’s governing politicians have too often worked against the public’s right to know — regardless of their pre-power promises.

GAG ORDERS ON A GLOBAL RISE? Earlier this year, Vancouver-based journalist Jeremy Hainsworth quoted media lawyer Dan Burnett as saying, “In the good old days, the media would fight anything that infringes freedom of the press.” But nowadays, sealing orders and closed courts are challenged “less and less” as a result of newsroom cutbacks — something that’s also appears to be happening in Down Under.

Here’s what Australian lawyer Peter Bartlett had to say in an interview with the Media Report‘s presenter Richard Aedy:

Bartlett: There’s been a significant increase, I think, in the number of suppression orders, especially in Victoria, over the last couple of years. And there seems to be a trend of an increase in New South Wales, despite the fact that there has been legislation introduced in New South Wales – and also Victoria — promoting open justice.

Aedy: So why is that the happening?

Bartlett: Potentially, it’s linked to the fact that the rivers of gold for traditional media have gone and the media companies are not appearing in court to oppose suppression orders to the degree they used to.

Aedy: Right. So even though there are specific laws in our two most populous states which should make it easier for media organizations to challenge suppression orders, they still have to be challenged and that has to be funded?

Bartlett: They still have to be challenged…

THE HIGH PRICE OF ADVERTISING In recent months, eyebrows have been raised about the new relationship being created between advertisers and some of our country’s major news publishers.

For example, the Vancouver’s Observer reported Postmedia Network Inc. was trying to convince Canada’s oil and gas lobby to sponsor energy “channels” on it’s newspaper Website.

Meanwhile, Canadaland obtained a memo that appears to confirm the Globe and Mail’s management “wants journalists to generate articles directly paid for and approved by advertisers.”

In a recent interview with Desmog Canada, I weighed in on that controversy, commenting that such initiatives may well erode “the social and political value of the content that media institutions are supposed to be producing.” You can read more here.

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

Author’s note: With summer upon us, my weekly look at news about the state of democracy, openness and accountability was interrupted for a well-deserved break. Weekend distribution of the column will now resume.

PRIVACY POST APPOINTEES NO STRANGER TO SCANDAL

Daniel Therrien now guards the locks on Canadians' private information. But he's not the first to have been put in that position under a cloud of scandal. (Graphic by Shutterstock.com)

Daniel Therrien now guards the locks on Canadians’ private information. But he’s not the first to have been put in that position under a cloud of controversy. (Graphic by Shutterstock.com)

HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF AT PRIVACY COMMISSIONER’S OFFICE The Harper administration’s selection of Daniel Therrien as Canada’s next privacy commissioner has been the subject of much understandable concern from critics and the country’s commentariat.

After all, Therrien, a former assistant deputy attorney general at the Department of Justice, will now be watchdogging government agencies he once advised and policies he helped develop.

But it’s worth remembering past appointments to that same post have stirred up comparable controversy.

For example, in 1991, then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s ex-communications director Bruce Phillips was named privacy commissioner.

The Globe and Mail and the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial boards opposed that hiring, with one of the capital city newspaper’s columnists arguing the commissioner must be a “standard-bearer not a spin doctor.”

Meanwhile, Liberal and New Democrat MPs described Phillips — who was once CTV News’s Ottawa bureau chief — as a “lap dog” and a “Tory hack,” voting against his appointment.

Nevertheless, after seven years, there was widespread opinion that Philips had done a good job — so much so that he was unanimously reappointed.

And, two years later, Phillips was described by the Globe and Mail’s Hugh Winsor as leaving his job “with stars on his epaulettes.”

His successor George Radwanski would depart under different circumstances.

Like Phillips, Radwanski was a former journalist.

But, like Phillips, he also had a partisan background, advising Liberal leaders John Turner and Jean Chretien when the Grits were in opposition.

And, like Phillips, his candidacy was questioned by the opposition and the press because of that background, with columnist Jim Travers writing that the privacy commissioner’s role should “not be diminished by real or imagined political conflicts.”

“While Radwanski, like Phillips before him, may succeed despite political ties, the government is needlessly risking the position’s most valuable asset, its credibility.”

Ultimately, it was questionable spending rather than partisanship that jeopardized that credibility, resulting in Radwanski’s resignation in 2003.

But, regardless of what Phillips and Radwanski’s records were as privacy commissioner and what Therrien’s will be — the shared controversy over their appointments demonstrates a long-ignored need to reconsider how that office is filled.

Indeed, during the flap over Phillips’s connection to Mulroney, the Globe and Mail reported Liberal senators were “considering the introduction of a bill to require consensus from all political parties when appointments are made to key parliamentary offices.”

Twenty-three years later, it’s still not too late to make that happen.

MERGER INTERRUPTUS? Last week, BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association executive director Vincent Gogolek questioned whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper might merge the offices of Canada’s information and privacy commissioners — making Thierren responsible for both briefs.

But proposals for such a merger have failed in the past. In a 2005 report for then Attorney General Irwin Cotler, former Supreme Court justice Gérard La Forest summarized that history this way:

In 1985 and 1986, the idea of merging the two offices was considered by the parliamentary committee responsible for the three year statutory review of the [Privacy Act and the Access to Information Act]. The committee recommended that the offices be kept separate in order to avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest in the discharge of the commissioners’ mandates.

In the 1992 budget, the Government announced an intention to merge the two offices as part of an effort to streamline government and “encourage a balancing of interests between the two objectives of privacy and access to information.”

The Government planned to use section 55 of the Privacy Act to appoint the Information Commissioner as Privacy Commissioner. Information Commissioner John Grace spoke in favour of the proposal.

The proposal was criticized, however, by a number of parties (including Privacy Commissioner Bruce Phillips, privacy advocates, and the Canadian Bar Association), and it was not implemented.

In the mid-1990’s, the Government considered the idea of merging the Information and Privacy Commissioners’ offices with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. This proposal too was ultimately rejected.

The Government returned to the idea of merging the Information and Privacy Commissioners’ offices in 1998, but again no action was taken.

In 2001, an ad hoc parliamentary access to information committee recommended the merger of the two offices, but the government did not respond publicly to the proposal.

Lastly, in October 2003, Information Commissioner John Reid authored a position paper advocating the merger of the two offices. The Government, however, did not move forward on this proposal.

La Forest also recommended against such a merger. So, if Harper did consider combining the information and privacy commissioners’ offices, the weight of history would be strongly against him.

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

DATA ON CANADIAN VALUES NOT A PRIORITY FOR FEDS

Does the federal government care if it doesn't know what Canadian values are? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Does the federal government care if we don’t know what Canadian values are? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

OTTAWA SAYS IT’S COMMITTED TO RESEARCH DESPITE NOT FUNDING VITAL SURVEY Three federal government departments decided not to fund the latest round of the World Values Survey in Canada because they dedicated their research budget to “other priority areas.”

Earlier, I exclusively reported the absence of such funding meant our country wasn’t among the 59 countries included in that round — one of the few means we have of knowing what our current values are, how we differ from people in other countries and whether those values have changed over time.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Justice Canada and Canadian Heritage were among the departments that financed the survey’s last wave, which took place in 2005.

Justice contributed $22,150, while Heritage contributed $85,000 to allow the survey’s Canadian investigator Neil Nevitte to “explore social capital and values, including the World Values Survey.”

By comparison, Citizenship and Immigration did not disclose the amount of funding it provided. However, spokesperson for Statistics Canada, which provided $1.4 million for the survey’s Canadian component between 1998 and 2006, stated the department approached it about providing additional financing for the 2010 round. That approach was declined.

There have been concerns that the lack of World Values Survey data for Canada will mean more policy decisions will be made in a “vacuum” and create a “huge hole” for socio-political research.

Government spokespeople didn’t directly respond to a question about those concerns.

Instead, communications staff for the three departments I contacted stated their ministries remain “committed to research and meeting the needs of Canadians today.”

Justice Canada and Citizenship and Immigration Canada will be relying “on many sources of information” to inform their policy development and program delivery work

Meanwhile, Canadian Heritage has “identified other research priorities to inform performance measurement and policy and program development.”

Nevitte, a University of Toronto political scientist, earlier estimated the cost of gathering the data for the 2010 Canadian component of the World Values Survey would have been around $650,000.

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER Earlier, I reported the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying appeared to have passed on participating in a review of lobbying disclosure in Canada. But the office now says it will be making a late contribution to that study, which was already published by the Sunlight Foundation on May 5.

The study stated the United States-based foundation did not receive any response to written questions that had been sent to the commissioner’s office, despite “multiple follow ups.”

However, in an email, a spokesperson for the office stated it is now “in the process of finalizing its response to the Sunlight Foundation. It is the Office’s understanding that its responses will be added to the case study when received.”

THE OVERSTATED POWER OF THE PRESS “Don’t put anything on paper that you don’t want to read on the front page of the Vancouver Sun.” That was the advice I got as a communications advisor for the British Columbia government — versions of which, I suspect, are given to bureaucrats the world over.

But I was always surprised at how much didn’t end up on the front page of the Vancouver Sun. And, as a reporter, I was always frustrated about how difficult it was to get the papers bureaucrats were writing. Which is why I appreciate famed leaker Daniel Ellsberg‘s observation that this adage is “flatly false” — a lie that serves the self-interests of those who were in newsrooms and government.

In his 2002 bestselling memoir Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers — which, given Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning’s revelations, has become more relevant than ever — Ellsberg states, such truisms are “in fact cover stories, ways of flattering and misleading journalists and their readers, part of the process of keeping secrets well.”

“Of course eventually many secrets do get out that wouldn’t in a fully totalitarian society,” continues Ellsberg. But “the reality unknown to the public and to most members of Congress and the press is that secrets that would be of the greatest important to many of them can be kept from them reliably for decades by the executive branch, even though they are known to thousands of insiders.”

As such, the statement, “Don’t put anything that you don’t want to read on the front page of the (insert paper of record here)” may simply ensure circumspect record-keeping on the part of bureaucrats, an overstated sense of efficacy on the part of journalists and continued public complacence about the amount of transparency and accountability in our political system.

Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.

LACK OF FUNDING DERAILS VITAL VALUES SURVEY

How do the values of all these people compare to those in other countries? Without the World Values Survey, we might not know. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

How do the values of all these people compare to those in other countries? Without the World Values Survey, we might not know. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

As a result of a lack of federal government funding, Canada wasn’t included in the most recent World Values Survey — one of the few means we have of knowing what our values are, how we differ from people in other countries and whether those values have changed over time.

The survey — which uses individual, face-to-face interviews rather than phone calls — has happened six times over the past 33 years, with the most recent being conducted in 59 different countries. Respondents answer a questionnaire that measures nearly 250 indicators covering everything from someone’s feelings about race to their political leanings.

In the past, the survey has included Canada, with 2,164 Canadian respondents in 2005 and 1,931 in 2000.

Because of that work, we know, for example, that 14 percent of Canadians in 2005 said they wouldn’t like someone who was gay to be their neighbour. By comparison, 24.9 percent of Americans said the same thing.

Past surveys have also told us 64 percent of Canadians in 2005 would have agreed or strongly agreed to an increase in taxes if the extra money was used to prevent environmental pollution — an seven point increase over 2000.

And we know 16.8 percent of Canadians in 2005 agreed or strongly agreed that politicians who don’t believe in God are unfit for public office, compared 30.5 percent of Americans.

Findings such as these are valuable for everyone from journalists and researchers to politicians and everyday voters — potentially leading to stories, studies and policy-changes. But Canadians won’t know if those values or any others changed between 2010-14 because our country — which has been part of the survey since 2000 — wasn’t included in its most recent wave, the results of which were released late last month.

University of Toronto political science professor Neil Nevitte, the investigator in charge of the survey’s Canadian component, stated the money for that research previously came from a number of federal government departments, as well as Statistics Canada.

“Each had very good reasons for wanting these kinds of cross time data for policy reasons,” Nevitte wrote in an email.

According to Nevitte, the cost of gathering the data for the new survey would have been around $650,000. That data gathering would have included hour-long, in-person interviews with 1,500 Canadians and additional interviews with 600 new immigrants.

But Nevitte stated, “In the last round, the members of that [government] consortium faced cutbacks of one sort or another and, in the end, we could not put the team together. Not an unusual story. But truly a shame from many, many points of views.”

Indeed, University of British Columbia political science professor Richard Johnston said the absence of the World Values Survey will result in a “huge hole.”

“It means anything we have to say [about political and social values] will be stale to the tune of at least a decade. We won’t have current stuff,” said Johnston, the Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections, and Representation.

As a result, he continued, more public policy decisions will be made in a “vacuum.”

“It’s akin to why the Canadians should care about the long form census,” said Johnston, a reference to the Conservative government’s 2010 decision to replace it with a voluntary national household survey, which is less comprehensive and reliable.

Keith Neuman, executive director of The Environics Institute — a non-profit public opinion research group — echoed Johnston’s comments.

Neuman said the absence of the World Values Survey is another example of where “research that has been historically present and important in terms of how we understand who we are and how we fit into an international context is all going missing.”

He said such research is important because it doesn’t come “through the sometimes distorted lens of the media and special interests.”

Nevitte stated he is currently in the process of trying to secure funding so Canada is included in the World Values Survey’s next round. That round is scheduled to get underway in 2017 with the data being released in 2018 or 2019.

Several federal government departments were unable to respond by deadline to requests for comment placed on Friday last week.