OPEN GOVERNMENT FOR ALL?

Will this soon be standard issue equipment for civil servants when reporters are present? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Will this soon be standard issue equipment for federal civil servants dealing with the news media? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

REPORTERS GET SPECIAL TREATMENT FROM HARPER ADMINISTRATION The muzzle federal bureaucrats must wear around journalists appears to be so tight that they can’t even talk about the Harper administration’s open government action plan if a reporter is in the room but one of their spin doctors isn’t.

The scene of that crime against free speech was a “public workshop” in Halifax which was supposed to give Canadians an opportunity to comment on the second edition of that plan.

But, according to the investigative reporter Tim Bousquet, when he showed up to that meeting, a woman who worked for the Treasury Board “asked who I worked for and left the room to make a phone call.”

“When she came back, she said that with a journalist in the room, the Treasury Board employees were not authorized to speak without a government media professional in the room.”

Ironically, the Canadian Association of Journalists recently wrote a letter calling on the federal government to do away with such poisonous public relations restrictions as part of its new open government action plan (disclosure: I drafted and then, as one of the association’s regional directors, co-signed that letter).

TRAINED SEALS FAIL TO FLEE AQUARIUM Michael’s Chong Reform Act is being “watered down to the point of transparency,” according to the National Post’s Andrew Coyne. But don’t say I didn’t warn you this would happen.

The bill, which was introduced last year by Chong, was supposed to legally enshrine caucus’s authority to remove party leaders. It was also supposed to take away the final say those leaders have on who gets to run for their party and who doesn’t.

But, last week, Chong announced he would be proposing two major changes to the Act that will limit those provisions.

The first will allow parties to designate someone who will get a final say on who can be an election candidate. The second will allow caucuses to opt out of having the power to remove their leader.

In response, Coyne — who had described the bill as containing “the seeds of a revolution” — wrote the Reform Act has been “effectively gutted”

But that should come as no surprise to readers here.

Earlier, in covering the Reform Act, I opined, “Canada’s MPs may soon have a chance to steal fire from their gods. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t seize it.”

THE HIGH PRICE OF FREEDOM (OF INFORMATION) A Calgary city councillor wants the public to pay more for information about work the public has paid for, even though Alberta’s freedom of information fees are already among the highest in the country.

Speaking with the Calgary Herald, Ray Jones said, “I think there should be fair market value on it. I think whoever asks the FOIPP requests should be paying for it.”

According to the newspaper, Jones made the comment after aides “spent days responding to a query under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act for details of all the gifts councillors have given to the public.”

It costs $25 to file a freedom of information request in Alberta, with other provinces and the federal government charging $5 or nothing at all. Only the Northwest Territories and Nunavut match Alberta’s filing fee.

Similar to other Canadian governments, Alberta also allows freedom of information applicants to be charged the cost of searching for records and copying them.

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

U.S. REPORTING EXPOSES LACK OF B.C. MINING INFO

The Mount Polley Mine is just one example of an operation British Columbians are being kept in the dark about. (Photograph by Imperial Metals Corp.)

The Mount Polley Mine is just one example of an operation British Columbians are being kept in the dark about. (Photograph by Imperial Metals Corp.)

When there was a deadly explosion at West Virginia’s Sago Mine in 2006, the United States media was able to quickly inform the public about the operation’s poor safety record — something that would be impossible in British Columbia without government cooperation.

Yesterday, I reported how British Columbians have very little information about the safety and regulation of mining compared to Americans, making it difficult for journalists and activists to watchdog that industry.

The reporting on the Sago Mine disaster, which killed 12 workers, is a dramatic example of that difference. On day two of the story, the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. was able to use the United States government’s Mine Data Retrieval System to inform readers the mine had “a recent history of roof falls and serious safety violations.”

Specifically:

In 2004, the Sago Mine reported an injury rate that was three times that of similar-size underground mines across the country.

And last year, the Anker West Virginia Mining Co. operation was fined more than $24,000 for about 200 alleged violations, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data.

During the last six months of 2005, the Sago Mine reported a dozen accidental roof falls, according to MSHA records.

Only one of those roof falls caused an injury, the MSHA records show.

Three of the roof falls occurred after International Coal Group finalized its purchase of the Anker operation in mid-November.

During their last three complete examinations of the Sago Mine, MSHA inspectors cited the company for more than 180 violations.

After the most recent such inspection — from early October to late December — MSHA issued 46 citations and three orders for a variety of safety violations. Inspectors listed 18 of those as “serious and substantial.” These “S&S’ violations are those that MSHA believes are likely to cause an accident that would seriously injure a miner.

It’s intolerable that this kind of information about mining isn’t publicly posted in British Columbia.

Instead, journalists, activists and citizens have to go cap in hand to the government, begging for it to be released.

The only alternative is to request that information through the province’s lengthy and often frustrating freedom of information process.

But what’s even more frustrating is how little seems to have been done to change this state-imposed ignorance.

BRITISH COLUMBIANS KEPT IN THE DARK ON MINE SAFETY

The public have enough information to prevent disasters like this one -- the Mount Polley Mine tailings pond collapse -- from happening in the future. (Photograph by Cariboo Regional District)

The public doesn’t have enough information to prevent disasters like this one — the Mount Polley Mine tailings pond collapse — from happening in the future. (Photograph by Cariboo Regional District)

British Columbia is one of the country’s biggest mineral producers. But, compared to Americans, British Columbians have very little information about the safety and regulation of that activity. And that means journalists, activists and citizens have very little power to stop mining problems before they become mining disasters.

Just such a disaster happened last month when the tailing dam at Imperial Metals Corp.‘s Mount Polley Mine collapsed, resulting in a flood of concern and questions about safety at similar operations in the province.

In response to a request from Vancouver Sun reporter Gordon Hoesktra, the government released details on the 49 “dangerous or unusual occurrences” that were recorded as happening at tailing ponds in British Columbia between 2000 and 2012.

Earlier, it also released a summary of inspections at the Mount Polley Mine. But a spokesperson for the ministry of energy and mines confirmed the government “does not generally publicly post mine inspection reports or related information, including the dates on which they were conducted.”

The reason: such reports, which can be obtained via the province’s sometimes-lengthy and often frustrating freedom of information request process, “need to be reviewed for any personal and financial information before they can be released.”

The government also hasn’t released details on the “dangerous or unusual occurrences” that were recorded as happening at mining locations other than tailing ponds between 2001 and 2012. Those occurrences, according to aggregate statistics released as part of the chief inspector of mines’s annual report, include 1,173 incidents at pits, 287 incidents at plants or mills, 178 incidents at maintenance shops, etc. etc., etc.

When asked whether the province discloses any other information about health, safety and environmental violations at mines in British Columbia, a ministry spokesperson stated the government does post overviews of significant spills of oil or hazardous material. “From time to time, and as appropriate” it may post hazard alerts about incidents at mines “when relevant on a broader scale.”

The federal and provincial governments also maintain databases of their environmental offenders. But both have major limitations. For example, the provincial database doesn’t include those who have violated British Columbia’s Mines Act. And the federal database, which has just 78 entries, only includes information about convictions of corporations obtained via court proceedings. It doesn’t include tickets, warning letters or compliance orders issued to them.*

By comparison, the haul of information about mines in the United States is considerably richer.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has a database that includes statistics and reports about past and present health and safety accidents, inspections and violations at individual mines. And the Environmental Protection Agency has a similar database detailing environmental inspections and violations at those operations.

That means Americans, with just a few keystrokes, can find out there were four injuries at Imperial Metals’s Sterling Mine in Nevada between 2012 and 2014, including a “serious abrasion to thumb,” a “tibia fracture” and a head laceration.

They also can find out there’s been six health and safety inspections of that mine so far this year during which 13 violations of the Mine Act were cited, with penalties and proposed penalties totaling $4,764.

And they can find out the last Resource Conservation and Recovery Act inspection of Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corp.‘s Goldstrike Mine, which is also located in Nevada, took place on May 14 and that the operation is currently listed as being in “significant violation” of that legislation.

There is absolutely no reason why British Columbians shouldn’t be similarly informed about our own mines — except for our willingness to elect governments on both the left and right that exploit our political complacency and infantilism.

After all, how many citizens do you think will put information rights as their top issue the next time they go to the polls? And how many even care about those rights between elections?

But without such information it’s impossible for British Columbians to know how safe our mines are — and whether officials are doing enough to keep those operations safe.

Journalists and activists just don’t know what we don’t know.

Instead, we have to trust that our Father Knows Best government will take care of its citizen-children at the expense of the powerful who are its friends and financiers.

And that’s exactly the way most politicians, once they get into power, seem to like it.

* = Imperial Metals doesn’t show up in either database.

SHOULD REPORTERS DO MORE TO SHAME SECRET KEEPERS?

One possible punishment for public bodies that violate Canadians' right to know. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

Another possible punishment for public bodies that get in the way of Canadians’ right to know. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

NAME THAT SHAME Like Canadian reporters, students journalists in the United States have seen their freedom of information requests frustrated.

But, six months ago, a legal aid group for those students decided to something clever about that frustration.

The Student Press Law Centre launched a Tumblr blog called FOIA Shaming, inviting campus reporters to share stories about university administrators who have violated the public’s right to know.

Only five such stories have posted on the blog so far. Nevertheless, I wonder whether a similar initiative to shame Canadian public bodies that charge excessive fees for freedom of information requests or are laggards in responding to them might be worthwhile?

CANADIANS CAMERA SHY In the United States, television cameras are allowed in state courts but not in the Supreme Court. By comparison, in Canada, cameras have been rare in trial courts but our highest court is televised. However, public attitudes towards expanding such coverage are very different in the two countries.

Last week, the Washington, DC-based Coalition for Court Transparency released poll in which 74 percent of 1,000 respondents said they would support having the Supreme Court’s proceeding broadcast “live to the American people.”

By comparison, when Angus Reid Public Opinion asked 1,017 Canadians in 2010 for their opinion on whether “cameras and recording devices” should be allowed inside our courts, just 49 percent said they would support such a decision.

A MADE IN CANADA SOLUTION? Is The Atlantic’s David Frum suggesting the United States should be more like Canada if wants to cure its political ills?

In a column published last month, Frum — the son of former CBC journalist Barbara Frum and brother of Canadian Conservative Senator Linda Frum — argued, “When government seems to fail, Americans habitually resort to the same solutions: more process, more transparency, more appeals to courts.”

But, according to Frum, “Each dose of this medicine leaves government more sluggish,” weakening political authority and yielding “more lobbying, more expense, more delay, and more indecision.”

Of course, as readers of this column know, Canadians don’t seem as prone to the same kinds of reformist tendencies.

As a result, our system of government — with its secret cabinet meetings, rigid party discipline and antiquated freedom of informations laws — remains comparatively efficient if somewhat undemocratic.

Frum did not respond to a tweet asking whether his column was inspired by that system.

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

TORY DONOR PITCH MAY RISK PRESS FREEDOM RANK

What price will Canada pay so the Conservatives can fill their coffers? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

What price will Canada pay so the Conservatives can fill their coffers? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

In its repeated attacks on the media, the governing Conservatives may also be undermining Canada’s international reputation for press freedom.

This week, the party’s fundraising and membership director Jaime Girard claimed in a fundraising email that, “Unlike the Liberals, [the Tories] don’t have the Ottawa media elite backing us.”

That followed an earlier fundraising email, distributed in August, claiming “the urban media elite are mobilizing against” the Conservatives.

Eight months before that, the party also exhorted supporters that they couldn’t “let Liberal attacks and the media stop us from reaching our [fundraising] goal.”

And, in November 2013, Justice Ministry Peter MacKay wrote that the Conservatives needed donations to “fight back” against Liberal leader Justin Trudeau “and his allies in the media.”

Such claims may seem to some like par for Canada’s increasingly partisan political course.

But they are also one of the indicators Reporters Without Borders uses to measure attacks on press freedom worldwide.

Its World Press Freedom Index questionnaire asks respondents how often the government of a country has attempted to publicly discredit or publicly insult journalists within the past 12 months.

The results of that questionnaire — which is sent to 18 freedom of expression groups, Reporters Without Borders’s 150 correspondents, as well as journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists — are then used to assemble the index.

The most recent index ranked Canada’s press freedom 18th out of 180 countries examined, although its methodology hasn’t been without criticism.

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.