THE TYRANNY OF THE TALKING POINT

Government spin doctors control what information government does and doesn't release. (Graphic by Shutterstock.com)

Spin doctors control what information government does and doesn’t release. (Graphic by Shutterstock.com)

Dear government spin doctor

I am working on a story about how the job you’re doing is helping to kill Canada’s democracy.

I know that your role, as a so-called communications professional, is to put the best spin on what the government is or isn’t doing.

That means you often don’t respond the questions I ask, you help elected officials do the same thing and you won’t let me talk to those who actually have the answers.

While this may work out very well for you, it doesn’t work out so well for my audience who, by the way, are taxpayers, voters and citizens.

So your refusal to provide me with information is actually a refusal to provide the public with information.

And if the public doesn’t know what their government is actually doing, it can continue doing things the public wouldn’t want it to do.

That just doesn’t seem very democratic to me. Does it seem democratic to you?

I understand you’re just doing your job.

I did that job before myself before I became a journalist, working as a communications officer for the British Columbia government.

So I don’t think you’re a bad person.

But you should know a few things about me.

My job isn’t to help you put the best spin on what the government is or isn’t doing.

My job is to tell the truth.

And, because that’s my job, you should know a few other things about how I’m going to report this story.

First, if you don’t respond to my questions, I’m going to let my audience know that.

Second, if you respond to my questions with non-answers, I’m going to let my audience know that too.

Third, I’m not going to put those non-answers in my story for the sake of false balance.

That’s because me asking questions about what the government is doing wrong isn’t an opportunity for you to simply tell the public about what government is doing right.

You have a big advertising budget for that.

Instead, it’s an opportunity to explain to the public why the government is or isn’t doing that thing I asked you about.

And, finally, if you refuse, ignore or interfere with my requests to interview public officials, my audience will also find out about that.

This may sound like hardball at best and blackmail at worst. But it’s actually the last and only defense I have against you and your colleagues.

Public relations professionals outnumber journalists more than four to one in this country – and for good reason.

It pays to promote and protect the powerful but it doesn’t pay to hold them to account.

My hope is that more journalists will also start routinely telling their audiences about the strategies and tactics you use to frustrate the public’s right to know.

If that happens then the public might start caring about the damage that’s doing to our democracy.

And, maybe, just maybe you might start rethinking what you are doing.

After all, there was a time when journalists could actually talk to public officials without having someone like you always watching over their shoulder and telling them exactly what to say.

I know it’s a long shot.

But it’s the only shot I can take against the tyranny of your talking points.

Sincerely,

Sean Holman, Journalist

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• Maclean’s magazine reports the Department of National Defence is withholding information from the Parliamentary Budget Officer about Operation IMPAC – Canada’s mission in Iraq – on the grounds of cabinet confidentiality. (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)

• The National Post reports a Federal Court judge has ruled “media fighting for access to Omar Khadr have failed to show a prison-interview ban was politically motivated and violated their constitutional rights.”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• CBC News reports, “Alberta Premier Jim Prentice has personally ordered that documents from all general freedom of information requests be publicly posted, despite serious concerns from the civil servants responsible for implementing the new policy. Critics say the plan – if implemented – represents a major policy change that will seriously undermine the ability of opposition parties and the media to hold the government accountable.”

• “The province is not tracking how many inmates are overdosing in jails across Ontario,” according to the Hamilton Spectator.

• The Vancouver Sun reports, “Soon-to-be mandatory ‘independent’ review boards for tailings dams at B.C. mines may not be answerable to government or open to scrutiny by the public.” The boards were recommended by a government-appointed panel that was struck following the breach of a tailings pond at the Mount Polley Mine.

• The Telegram hopes a committee reviewing Newfoundland and Labrador’s controversial right to know law will recommend a “much needed laissez-faire approach to the release of information.” That committee, led by former premier Clyde Wells, “has missed a couple of promised deadlines. At last check, it was supposed to release its report by the end of January.”

• Kinder Morgan Inc., the company that is looking to expand a pipeline that carries crude oil to the West coast, “has engaged in a protracted fight with the province of British Columbia in an effort to keep its oil spill response plans a secret.” But, according to DeSmog Canada, Kinder Morgan has “willingly disclosed” such plans “south of the border for portions of the pipeline that extend to Washington State.”

• The Globe and Mail reports, “B.C.’s Ministry of Health is withholding the results of scientific research on how oil and gas operations in the province’s northeast communities are affecting human health.” Independent MLA Vicki Huntington’s freedom of information request for that research was denied because its release could be harmful to the financial interests of a public body.

• CBC News reports Saskatchewan’s information commissioner has ruled a 15-page proposal to create a premier’s library in that province can stay secret because it would disclose a cabinet confidence.

• Saksatchewan NDP MLA Warren McCall has told the Regina Leader-Post that the creation of lobbyists registry in that province as proceeding “slower than molasses, uphill, in February.”

• Manitoba’s “Opposition Progressive Conservatives say they’re getting the runaround in finding how much taxpayers have paid to put up at-risk youth in hotels,” according to the Winnipeg Free Press. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• CBC News reports DemocracyWatch founder Duff Conacher’s concerns that “New Brunswick’s right to information law is weak and the fines for breaking the laws are so low, they are meaningless”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• Winnipeg’s interim chief administrative officer has resigned after the mayor claimed he had lost confidence in the bureaucrat. But, according to the Winnipeg Free Press’s Dan Lett, no further details have been provided because the resignation is a personnel matter – a “trump card” that is “played way too often in situations in which government doesn’t want people to know what happened.”

• 24 hours Vancouver’s Kathyrn Marshall writes that White Rock, B.C.’s city council has “voted to scrap question period. Just like that, White Rock has obliterated a hallmark of liberal democracy. White Rock residents will no longer have the opportunity to pose public questions to their elected representatives following council meetings.”

• In October, TransLink – Vancouver’s regional transportation authority – began “re-examining current [freedom of information] practices and exploring options for easing the burden on staff.” That review, which was expected to take three months, was announced in a memo signed by the authority’s then-chief executive officer Ian Jarvis and obtained by freelance journalist Bob Mackin.

• The Vancouver Courier reports, “When the provincial government set the rules for the non-binding plebiscite on a sales tax hike for TransLink expansion, it didn’t include any campaign fundraising or reporting regulations.”

• “Toronto police met the mandated [freedom of information] response deadline of 30 days in 52 per cent of requests last year,” according to the Toronto Star. “That’s nearly a 30 per cent drop from 2005 – when 80 per cent of FOI requests were completed within the 30-day timeframe – and down almost 15 per cent from 2013, which saw a compliance rate of 65 per cent.”

• Alberta’s information commissioner has ruled Cold Lake, Alta. was right to release records that disclosed unit prices and hourly wage rates for the companies responsible for a highway twinning project. According to the Cold Lake Sun, a third party had argued that disclosure was harmful to business interests.

BILL COVERAGE GIVES FALSE HOPE FOR DEMOCRACY

Liberal MP Ted Hsu's bill to reinstate the mandatory long-form census had no real chance of passing. Too bad not every news outlet let their audience know that. (Photograph by Ted Hsu)

Liberal MP Ted Hsu’s private member’s bill to reinstate the mandatory long-form census had no real chance of passing. Too bad not every news outlet let their audience know that. (Photograph by Ted Hsu)

Small, tiny and slim: these are all words that describe the chances of an opposition private member’s bill actually becoming law. Yet, when reporting on those bills, news outlets don’t always tell their audiences that, potentially giving a mistaken impression of how much democracy we have in Canada.

The government sponsors most of the bills that become law. But parliamentarians can also propose their own bills without government backing. These so-called private member’s bills could be a powerful means of dealing with issues the government doesn’t want to deal with.

I say “could” because few of them ever become law.

For example, according to the Parliament of Canada’s LEGISInfo research tool, 3,224 private member’s bills have been introduced or re-instated in the House of Commons between Jan. 17, 1994 and Friday last week. But, by my reckoning, only 69 or 2.1 percent of them bills received royal assent.

If that sounds bad, just wait because it gets even worse.

Opposition MPs sponsored just 21 of the bills that received royal assent, with over half of them concerned with issues of little controversy – such as renaming constituencies or creating commemorative days.

In part, that’s because parliamentary rules make it difficult to debate and vote on such legislation.

But, thanks to rigid party discipline, MPs rarely against their own party anyway. And, thanks to rigid partisanship, governing parties rarely vote for legislation introduced by their competitors. Which is why so few opposition private member’s bills get passed when a governing party holds a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

Nevertheless, not all of the reporting on private member’s bills lets Canadians in on that open secret and some even inadvertently cover it up.

For example, according to the Canadian Newsstand database, newspapers and the Canadian Press wire service have published at least 25 articles covering Liberal MP Ted Hsu’s proposal to restore the mandatory long-form census.

Thirteen of those articles dutifully reported that there was, in the words of a Globe and Mail editorial, “almost no chances it would pass.” But others didn’t mention that possibility or led readers to believe there was a chance it would pass.

One major daily published an editorial describing Hsu’s bill as a “golden opportunity” that the Tories should “jump on” to make amends for eliminating the long-form census. Meanwhile, another ran an op-ed lamenting the loss of “granular data on jobs and wages” that came with that survey but stating, “Not all is lost” thanks to Hsu bill.

Of course, that bill went on to be defeated earlier this month by a vote of 147 to 126, with all but one Conservative MP opposing Hsu’s bill.

But much more is at stake here than getting Canadians hopes up before dashing them.

Most MPs, especially those who belong to an opposition party, don’t have much say in making our laws. As a result, those who voted for them (in other words, Canadians) don’t have much say either, making democracy between elections a bit of a sham.

That has everything to do with our system of government and nothing to do with our sitting prime minister, who is just exercising the power afforded to him under that system.

One way reporters can help Canadians better understand that is by simply remembering to add an extra line in their coverage of opposition private member’s bills.

It could even be something like this: “A snowball has a greater chance in Hell than this legislation does of becoming law.”

Well, maybe not quite that. But you get the idea.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• FactsCan.ca, a Website that will fact-check the 2015 federal election, has succeeded in crowdfunding the $5,000 it needs to launch. The Website’s team includes RainCity Housing and Support Society community support worker Jacob Schroeder, Democracy Watch coordinator Tyler Sommers and Ryerson University senior research associate Dana Wagner.

• CBC News reports, “U.S. legislation requires American universities and colleges to be open about the number of sexual assaults on their campuses, warn students when they could be at risk and provide adequate security and prevention measures.” But no such legislation exists in Canada. (hat tip: Bruce Gillespie)

• The Toronto Star reports a lawyer for the media is arguing that “barring journalists from interviewing Omar Khadr, a federal prison is violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

• CBC News’s Dean Beeby tweets that he’s received 84 blank pages from the Department of Finance in response to a request for the cost of the government’s expanded child fitness tax credit. The reason for that redaction: it’s a cabinet confidence.

• Beeby tweets the Canada Revenue Agency is now responding to access requests with “password-protected CDs. But password failed – one more [freedom of information] obstacle.”

• CTV News’s Jon Woodward tweets that Health Canada “claims a new record for latest ATIP provided to me! Two years, 6 months, 25 days. Way older than my daughter.”

• Journalist David Akin tweets that it’s ironic that the federal government has announced $143,288 in funding for Self-Counsel Press Ltd. – which recently published an access to information guidebook.

• Planned Parenthood Ottawa president Lauren Dobson-Hughes tweets this interaction with an access to information officer: “Your ATI is 1,000 days late. Can we just drop it? If you don’t reply in five days, we’ll take that as a yes.”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The British Columbia government has introduced legislation that will see government records digitized and stored in an electronic archive. But the BC NDP and information commissioner Elizabeth Denham are concerned the bill doesn’t legally require government to document key actions and decisions.

• The Toronto Star reports a court-ordered publication ban is preventing the media from naming a 45-year-old mother who was sentenced to 20-months in jail for pressing a hot iron against the arms of her 10-year-old son.

• The Tyee reports British Columbia’s former lobbyists registrar is now lobbying that province’s government on behalf of a company that publishes school yearbooks.

According to the Regina Leader-Post, the Saskatchewan government has amended its freedom of information legislation to allow the release of “personal information included in a report stemming from a Municipalities Act inspection or inquiry.”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• “The three hospitals caught up in the Rob Ford privacy breach saga boast they are ‘transparent and accountable.'” But, according to the Toronto Star, those hospitals are “refusing to disclose how many staff members snooped into his records or how they were disciplined.”

• The Georgia Straight reports on nuggets from the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games’s archives – much of which is still under lock and key.

• Kitchener, Ont. Coun. Frank Etherington writes that fellow politicians “across Waterloo Region are in the process of abandoning voter accountability, government transparency and the public’s unquestionable right to know how $8 million of taxpayers cash will be spent.”

• “The secret documents behind a secret deal to build an NHL-size arena in Markham will stay secret – even though the project was defeated by council more than a year ago,” according to the Toronto Star.

• The Vaughan Citizen has renewed its call for the Ontario city to introduce a lobbyist registry.

• Maple Ridge, B.C.’s council has voted to increase the number of meetings it broadcasts on the Internet and disclose all of the contracts the city has entered into, according to the Maple Ridge Times.

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: Publication of this column was delayed due to Family Day. Its regular publication schedule will resume next week.

ANTI-TERROR LAW AND MINISTER’S EXIT GET EQUAL BILLING

Conservative cabinet minister John Baird's resignation got more coverage than a bill that could potentially turn Canada's spies into "secret police." (Graphic by Government of Canada)

News of Conservative cabinet minister John Baird’s resignation got the same amount of coverage as a bill that could potentially turn Canada’s spies into “secret police.” (Graphic by Government of Canada)

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING? Few Canadians can pick John Baird out of a lineup and even fewer can be certain of the influence he had as our foreign affairs minister.

Yet many news outlets appear to have paid around the same amount of attention to his resignation as they did when the government’s controversial anti-terror bill was first introduced – another example of how our ailing and flailing media have a tendency to put personality and politics on par with or ahead of policy and the public interest.

News of that resignation broke on Feb. 2 with CBC News’s Terry Milewski getting the jump on the announcement.

Between that date and Feb. 7, at least 115 columns, editorials and reports were published about Baird’s departure by news outlets listed in the Canadian Newsstand database.* Eight of those articles were given front-page treatment and there were five segments on CBC’s The National covering Baird’s exit.

Yet that coverage was likely the first time many Canadians had even heard of the Ottawa-area MP. After all, in 2011, 64.6 percent of the Canadian Election Study‘s more than 4,000 respondents said they didn’t know who the country’s current finance minister was (Jim Flaherty, if you’re too embarrassed to ask).

The study didn’t quiz respondents about the name of our foreign affairs minister. But if a majority of Canadians can’t identify who holds the purse strings attached to their tax dollars, what are the chances they know who commands Fort Pearson – the nickname for the headquarters of our country’s diplomatic corp.

Moreover, it’s unclear whether Baird was just another actor on the world stage or if he actually got to pen his own lines.

Following his resignation, he was variously described as being a “transformative” foreign affair minister, having “tilted Canada strongly towards Israel” and “played an important role” in “seeking warmer and more profitable relations with the Asian giant.”

But since much of our government is practiced in secret – with policy advice and cabinet records being kept under lock and key – can we really be sure which parts of that supposed legacy were authored by Baird and which parts were ghost written by his boss Stephen Harper or someone else?

What we do know for sure is the government’s proposed new anti-terror law has been described in the media as a “dangerous policy” that could create a “secret police force” and raises “worrying questions about freedom of expression.”

We also know that, between Jan. 29 – when the bill’s details started rolling out – and Feb. 3, there were 111 articles in the Canadian Newsstand database covering it.** Nine of them made front pages, while The National broadcast three segments on the law.

I make this comparison not to throw stones from my glass house but rather to hold a mirror up to a habit that is also a dangerous addiction.

When I was at British Columbia’s legislature I, like many other political reporters in this country, spent too much time writing about personality and politics and too little time covering policy. It’s easy and of interest to the audience we’re most familiar with – the bureaucrats, lobbyists, politicians and staffers we cover.

But the consequence is a public that’s less and less informed about our government and less and less interested in what journalists report on. We’ve helped turn a subject that should be the concern of the many into something that’s a concern for the few – political partisans and profiteers.

In doing so, journalists are undermining both our audience and what passes for democracy in this country. And that’s a legacy that going to with us long after Baird is gone.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• “The federal environment minister’s office tried to hide the fact a grizzly bear was struck on the Canadian Pacific Railway line in Banff National Park in May 2014,” according to the Rocky Mountain Outlook. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• “With a $10,000 per week per reporter price tag to follow political parties on their election campaigns and limited access to their leaders who are tightly scripted,” the Hill Times reports, “media outlets are reassessing how they will report on the upcoming election with smaller budgets.”

• The Canadian Press’s Steve Rennie tweets that it took the Canadian Border Services Agency “826 days to respond” to an access request he filed on Oct. 30, 2012. The irony: that response stated the agency is “committed to providing the highest level of client service.”

• Byran Smith, a former policy advisor to Treasury Board President Tony Clement, is looking to cash in on the open data movement. The Globe and Mail reports Smith’s company, ThinkData, “collects and cleans up government datasets which in their raw state can arrive in any number of conflicting formats. The service parses each one, and hosts a clean copy on its servers, which clients can access.”

• Maclean’s reports Liberal MP Ted Hsu’s bill to reinstate the mandatory long-form census was defeated “by a vote of 147 to 126. Every opposition MP voted in favour, but nearly every Conservative voted against  – Michael Chong was the only Conservative to vote in favour.”

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• The Rocky View Weekly reports Chestermere, Alta. officials are “working with a number of groups, including the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, to push through some changes” to the province’s freedom of information law. According to the newspaper, the proposed changes would allow governments to “recoup some of the costs associated with expensive requests.” Mayor Patricia Matthews is quoted as saying, “The average person like me wants to be able to keep taxes down, so we are hoping that by bringing this to the attention of our residents, it puts some pressure on their elected officials to say it can’t continue.”

• The Globe and Mail reports police allegations that “former premier Dalton McGuinty’s chief of staff took steps to keep government information secret – ‘double deleting’ e-mails and communicating by BlackBerry messenger to avoid leaving public records of his discussions” According to the newspaper, “Livingston, through his lawyers, has maintained that he did nothing wrong. No charges have been laid and the allegations have not been tested in court.”

• IntegrityBC executive director Dermod Travis writes that, since July 1, 2013 there have been only two references to “open government” on the B.C. government’s Website – even though Premier Christy Clark promised she was going to lead the most open and accountable government in Canada.

According to the Province, the B.C. government “says legal and privacy considerations prevent release of a full version of a scathing report into the mistaken firings of several health researchers in 2012.”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• Freelancer Bob Mackin tweets that Vancouver transit authority executives met to discuss its upcoming electronic fare card but “kept no minutes.”

• Concerned Residents Association of North Dumfries executive director Tamara Brown tweets that Cambridge, Ont. is asking for more than $60,000 in response to an access request for “info that should normally be public” regarding urban sprawl.

• CBC News reports several Winnipeg, Man. civic corporations aren’t subject to the province’s access law.

• Surrey, B.C. is “rolling out its ambitious Open Data Calogue” which “gives residents and business owners access to “economic indicators, business licences, commercial and industrial vacancy rates, population projections and availability of employment broken down into specific areas.” In an interview with Business in Vancouver, the city’s information technology Geoff Samson said the catalogue is the largest offering of this type of information by any city in Canada.

• “On the heels of criticism of its secret budget meetings,” the Waterloo Region Record reports Waterloo, Ont.’s local government is “pledging to get the public more involved in its 2016-2018 budget.”

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

* = Canadian Newsstand features articles from 270 of the country’s newspapers, as well as the Canadian Press wire service. Among the papers are those published by Postmedia Network Inc. and Brunswick News Inc., as well as FP Newspaper Inc., Glacier Media Inc., Torstar Corp.’s dailies and some of the properties owned by Black Press Group Ltd. Among those excluded are papers owned by Quebecor Inc. and Transcontinental Inc.

** = I searched Canadian Newsstand for the terms “Bill C-51,” “anti-terror law,” “anti-terrorism law,” “anti-terror bill,” “anti-terrorism bill,” “anti-terror legislation,” “anti-terorism legislation” or “Anti-Terrorism Act.”

HARPER AND OBAMA PROPAGANDA EQUALLY UNPOPULAR

Government cameras follow Prime Minister Stephen Harper everywhere but who is actually watching? (Photograph by Government of Canada)

Government cameras can follow Prime Minister Stephen Harper everywhere but who wants to watch what they record? (Photograph by Government of Canada)

MASS MEDIA? Stephen Harper’s taxpayer-funded 24 Seven Internet infomercial has been ridiculed for its minuscule audience. But the prime minister can take comfort in the fact a similar weekly program produced by United States President Barack Obama’s White House doesn’t seem to do much better with viewers.

24 Seven was launched just over a year ago to propagandize Harper’s accomplishments. Three bureaucrats in the Privy Council Office are usually responsible for producing that program, which – between Jan. 2, 2014 and Jan 1, 2015 – received an average of 2,592 YouTube views per episode as of this past Saturday.

That may seem small, working out to 7.3 views per 100,000 people in Canada. But, over a similar period, Obama’s West Wing Week received just 7.8 views per 100,000 people in the United States.

DEAFENING SILENCE Last week, the Washington, DC-based Centre for Public Integrity launched a new blog to shine a light on how often public officials refuse to answer questions from journalists – something that has “lately” become a problem in that country. But, even in a smaller country such as Canada, recording those refusals would be a voluminous task.

A search of newspapers in the Canadian Newsstand database shows that between Monday and Friday last week journalists reported at least 24 instances of public officials not responding to questions or being unavailable to answer them. Those instances include:

• Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt’s office not answering specific questions from the Canadian Press about a contract to come up with different ways of providing a food subsidy for northerners;

• Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s office not responding to a request for comment from the Globe and Mail about a decision to refuse the City of Toronto’s request for financial relief;

• Alberta Health Minister Stephen Mandel not responding to a request for comment from the Calgary Herald about a decision to shelve the building of a new cancer centre in Calgary;

• B.C. Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Steve Thomson being unavailable to answer questions from the Times Colonist about a decision to allow “hunting guides and their foreign clients a larger share of wildlife across the province;” and

• B.C. Mines Minister Bill Bennett not being reachable by the Globe and Mail for comment on the upcoming release of a report into what caused the collapse of a tailings pond at the Mount Polley Mine.

CENTRAL QUESTIONS The blame for the federal government’s non-answers to reporters could have less to do with “department media relations officers and more the result of centralized message-control by the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic arm of the Prime Minister’s Office.”

That analysis, which was penned by CBC News’s Kady O’Malley earlier last month, might leave Canadians thinking that, without such centralization, reporters would start getting real responses from the government. But, in my estimation, that’s extremely unlikely likely.

After all, overly broad, boilerplate answers are also provided by local and provincial governments across Canada, as well as corporations and non-governmental organizations.

I got them for nine years as a reporter covering the British Columbia government, whose Public Affairs Bureau was jokingly-known for serving PABlum to journalists. I also cooked up some of that PABlum myself as a communications advisor for the province’s Liberal and New Democrat administrations. And let me assure you, it wasn’t the bureaucratic arm of the Prime Minister’s Office that was behind that boilerplate.

Nor are such talking points and message boxes peculiar to Canada.

In a recent letter to Obama, 48 American journalism and open government groups complained that journalists are now getting “written responses of slick non-answers” rather than being allowed to communicate with federal government employees. Appropriately, White House press secretary Josh Earnest responded to those complains with his own non-answer, which failed to directly address the groups’ concerns.

Such public relations tactics threaten the public’s right to know. But no mere change in government, in this country or in the United States, will stop their deployment. They’ve become an embedded part of our political system – something that has just as much to do with departmental media relations officers as it does with the centralization of that system.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• The Tyee reports a government “briefing on proposed anti-terror legislation was light on information and heavy on restrictions,” prompting protests from parliamentary reporters.

According to the Globe and Mail, planners and researchers say, “The cancellation of the mandatory long-form census has damaged research in key areas, from how immigrants are doing in the labour market to how the middle class is faring, while making it more difficult for cities to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely.”

• The Ottawa Citizen reports, “The federal government has spent approximately $57 million on outside consultants over the past nine years to help decide which government records Canadians are allowed to obtain.”

• Information commissioner Suzanne Legault is concerned Bill C-520 may impact her ability to “recruit and retain the best and brightest.” That private members bill, which was introduced by Conservative MP Mark Adler, would require anyone working for or applying to work for an agent of Parliament to publicly disclose if they have held a politically partisan position in the last 10 years. Those agents include Legault, as well as Canada’s auditor general and its chief electoral officer. According to the information commissioner, that disclosure “could be used to assert the existence of a possible bias in the conduct of an investigation or audit” by her office. (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• “Two recent decisions from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario provide some guidance” about when aggregated or anonymized information can be released under the province’s access law.

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• In his most recent report on Ontario’s open meetings law, ombudsman André Marin has once again criticized its lack of teeth. The law, which was passed in 2008, requires municipalities to hold most of their meetings in public. But there’s no penalty for not following that rule. Moreover, just 196 of Ontario’s 444 municipalities choose to use the ombudsman’s free services to investigate open meetings law complaints. By comparison, “134 municipalities use Amberley Gavel, under contract with Local Authority Services, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, an organization which promotes municipal interests.”

• The Record’s Luisa D’Amato writes that Waterloo, Ont. residents “love the idea of their city as being innovative, efficient and businesslike.” But after an “ill-advised decision” to “limit questions from elected officials, and cut down on public access to discussion on the city’s budget,” those residents have learned that being businesslike is “not as important as openness and public scrutiny.”

• The code of conduct for Waterloo city councillors means that one of them had to “seek a majority vote for council for detailed answers on budget questions.” The Record quotes Mayor Dave Jaworsky defending that code, saying, “[If] you want council or the board as a whole to function as one…you can’t have one person instructing staff to do work.”

• “A record number of access to information requests at [Waterloo] city hall last year may mean more staff could be required to handle the extra workload in the future,” according to the Waterloo Chronicle. The newspaper reports, “The majority of the requests are related to searches for private property information and staff believe the increase is partially driven by the city’s rental housing bylaw, passed in 2011. Under the program, landlords must apply for a licence and renew it annually by April 1. If a rental property sells, the new owner must apply for a new licence, which includes getting all the necessary documentation and inspections.”

• Neal Yonson, who contributes to a Website covering the University of British Columbia, tweets, “Sigh. I want to like UBC’s FOI people, I really do. Delaying 60 days to send an $800+ fee estimate is not how we become friends.”

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

ARE THE LIBERALS FOOLING EVERYONE AGAIN?

The Liberals are promising more freedom of information but is it just another political card trick? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

The Liberals are promising more freedom of information but is it just another political card trick? (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has claimed his proposed Transparency Act will “raise the bar on openness and transparency for all Canadians,” helping fix the country’s long-broken freedom of information law.

But recent testimony by the country’s information commissioner and an interview with Scott Simms, the party’s open government critic, suggest one of the bill’s biggest promises may, at best, be a rhetorical flourish and, at worst, squander a chance to expand our limited information rights.

Trudeau introduced the Transparency Act last June, saying it would offer “tangible ideas to improve openness not only in Parliament, but in our government.”

Some of those laudable ideas include:

• eliminating the fees government can change when responding to an access to information request;

• forcing government to provide a detailed (rather than brief) explanation if it denies an access to information request; and

• giving the commissioner the power to order the government to release information it has improperly denied access to.

But Trudeau has also said his bill will make government information “open by default.”

That turn of phrase conjures up visions of millions of records flying off of government shelves and out of government computers for everyone to see. Indeed, National Newswatch columnist Don Lenihan told readers earlier this month that the Transparency Act would push the “doors to transparency and accountability wide open,” making public a “huge amount of information” that is now hidden.

So, depending on your political persuasion or naiveté, it may or may not surprise you to know the bill won’t do anything like that.

In an interview, Simms confirmed that, under the Liberals’ “open by default” principle, Canadians would still have to file access requests to obtain government records.

“It’s not like we’re going to create a whole new system from scratch. What we want to do is take the system we have right now and update it to the 21st century,” he said.

Part of that update proposes rewriting the federal access law so information would have to be “openly” available to the public in a “machine readable format” rather than just “available to the public.” The update would also change the law to state that exceptions to Canadians’ access rights should also be “rare” as opposed to simply being “limited and specific.”

But, when Liberal MP Ted Hsu asked information commissioner Suzanne Legault if she agreed with making those changes, this is what she said:

In my opinion, that’s the way the act is constructed as it is. I see what you’re saying in terms of amending the purpose clause. Most people who want to amend the act want to amend the purpose clause. Personally, I’m a lawyer. The purpose clause has been interpreted quite well by the courts in the last 30 years. I am somewhat leery of amending a purpose clause for that Act.

Indeed, if Trudeau really wanted to make information “open by default,” the Transparency Act would do something about the 75 different kinds of information government can or must keep hidden from the public.

These expansive exceptions to the “open by default” rule include everything from policy advice to internal audits. In other words, the Access to Information Act currently precludes public access to a many things the public actually cares about.

But the Transparency Act doesn’t lay a hand on those exceptions, something freedom of information researcher Ken Rubin also mentioned in a column for the Hill Times.

In fact, when I spoke with Simms, he repeatedly confirmed the Liberals are comfortable with the Access to Information Act’s existing exemptions and exclusions.

“I wouldn’t want to say this is exhaustive, it’s perfect, it’s fine, it’s just a matter of how you are applying it. But I think, for the most part, what frustrates Canadians is how the [exemptions and exclusions] are applied.”

Later in our interview, though, Simms said he wouldn’t want to endorse all of the exceptions. He also said, even if the Transparency Act doesn’t result in more transparency, it would still require the government to immediately review the Access to Information Act. That review would then be repeated every five years, creating an opportunity for future reform.

“It’s a step-by-step process to find out about all of these exemptions and rip them apart,” he said, adding that if history shows one of them “is one that does not comply with open government then so be it. Let’s have a look at that and change the act accordingly.”

But more than 30 years of freedom of information history in Canada – including numerous reports, reviews and recommendations by parliamentarians and past access commissioners – has already shown the existing exemptions and exclusions often don’t comply with the principle of open government.

Whoever drafted the Transparency Act would need to have ignorant to the limits of Canadians’ access rights to not know that. To think otherwise would tantamount to believing Treasury Board President Tony Clement’s claim that his government, which has been in office for almost nine years, ran out to time to review the Access to Information Act in a “meaningful” way.

Moreover, history has also shown political parties of all stripes often promise more openness in opposition and then deliver more secrecy once they form government. So I trust Simms will excuse me for predicting that, if the Liberals oust the Tories, their efforts to bring more sunshine into the corridors of power may very well both begin and end with the passage of the Transparency Act.

But much more is at stake here than Trudeau’s credibility as an access advocate and my own credibility as a political prognosticator.

The Conservatives, in their barefaced efforts to black out the inner workings of government, may have done the near impossible: turned freedom of information from an esoteric to a ballot box issue in 2015.

But, as American corporate and constitutional law professor Kent Greenfield recently said, “The energy for change is a finite resource.”

That means the Liberals could be wasting such energy with their Transparency Act – a piece of legislation that may do just enough to win the votes of those fed-up with government secrecy but not enough to make a major difference in the amount of information accessible to Canadians.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

Canada is more open with its data than 69 other countries, according to this year’s Open Data Barometer. But it’s also less open than six other countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom. Among Canada’s failings: the low availability of data related to government accountability, as well as the low impact open data has had on improving social policy. (hat tip: IntegrityBC)

• The Harper administration has taken a strong stand for freedom of information in other countries. But, according to the Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt, “there’s ample evidence already to illustrated that this freedom is somewhat more cherished at long distance by this government than it is at home in Canada.”

• The Globe and Mail unfavourably compares the opacity of Canada’s drug approval process to the transparency that exists in the United States, writing, “Health Canada treats nearly every aspect of the drug approval process as a state secret.” (hat tip: IntegrityBC)

• “The more security agencies grapple with terrorist threats, the less they appear to be telling Canadians,” according to the Ottawa Citizen, which looks at “four current examples of secrecy.”

• The Canadian Press reports, “A New Democrat MP is raising the spectre of a political coverup in asking the federal information watchdog to investigate the Canada Revenue Agency’s systematic deletion of employee text messages.”

• The New Democrats round up some quotes to prove that, even though the Liberals and the Conservatives say they’re in favour of openness, they have often ended up “governing in the same old secretive style, breaking all their promises to fix the Access to Information Act.”

• Ottawa Citizen columnist James Gordon shows off his “favourite” freedom of information response on twitter, adding, “Access to information in this country is a disgrace.”

• In response to a freedom of information request, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada sent Canadian Press reporter-editor Steve Rennie a CD with two blank pages on it.

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• New Brunswick’s Tory opposition is worried a review of the province’s Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act may reinstate fees for access requests. Reporting on those concerns, the Telegraph-Journal stated the Tories did away with such fees in 2011, making New Brunswick the only province where such requests are free.

• The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association has asked the province’s information commissioner to investigate the government’s decision to not post “at least two embarrassing reports because of ‘reputational interests’ of various public servants or public figures.”

• The Winnipeg Free Press takes the Manitoba government and the city’s school board to task for not publicly disclosing details about safety and violence in the education system.

• The Canadian Press reports, “Ontario’s New Democrats plan to introduce legislation next month to force the government to disclose the names of physicians who bill the province’s health insurance system and the amounts they charge each year.”

• The Northern Light wants the RCMP to share information about a police shooting that happened in Bathurst, N.B. “as soon as possible.” According to the newspaper, a spokesperson for the Mounties said on Jan. 13 that the findings of the investigation into that shooting may not be made public. But the spokesperson later reversed that position saying, “When the investigation is complete…it will be a matter…of public interest so it will be made public.”

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• Earlier this month, Waterloo, Ont. city councillors were encouraged to ask budget questions during closed door meetings “designed to sidestep open meeting rules” under the province’s Municipal Act. The Waterloo Regional Record also reported one of those councillors was so “frustrated with an inability to get budget information from [city] staff” that he resorted to the Freedom of Information Act to get his questions answered.” But, following that coverage, Waterloo Mayor Dave Jaworsky decided to put an end to those secret meetings, which the province’s ombudsman described as a “transparent, amateurish attempt at just flaunting the law.”

• Ontario’s information commissioner is “still investigating allegations that Toronto school board trustees interfered in the release of an audit of their expenses.” The Toronto Star requested that audit under the province’s freedom of information legislation.

• The Parksville Qualicum Beach News says local councils in some Vancouver Island communities are “too quick to go in camera.” Moreover, according to the newspaper, under British Columbia law, the “list of circumstances in which a council can close meetings…is a long one. Too long, we’d submit. In fact, one could make an argument every piece of business a council conducts could fall into one or more categories that allows for in camera proceedings.”

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: I’m pleased to announce that, beginning today, this weekly summary of freedom of information news will be syndicated on J-Source. As a result, I’m moving the publication time for this column from Sunday to Monday.

Correction: In last week’s column, I reported the Blytheville Courier News – which sent a copies of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Handbook to the state’s freshmen elected officials – had a circulation of just over 4,000. In fact, that circulation has dipped to “about 2,500,” according to the newspaper’s managing editor Mark Brasfield.

 

TOO SMALL TO BE ACCOUNTABLE?

The Yukon may be "Larger Than Life" but is it too small for a lobbyist registry? (Photograph by Yukon Tourism)

The Yukon may be “Larger Than Life” but is it too small for a lobbyist registry? (Photograph by Yukon Tourism)

SIZE MATTERS? Can a government be too small to need a lobbyist registry? Elaine Taylor, Yukon’s deputy premier, thinks so. But the deputy mayor of a much smaller jurisdiction in Ontario has a different opinion.

The Whitehorse Star reports Taylor made that observation in response to the NDP’s call for a law that would force anyone paid to influence Yukon politicians to disclose their activities. Speaking in the legislature, the deputy premier said, “This is a relatively small jurisdiction. We do not see the need in resolving issues such as this through legislation, regulation.”

But Collingwood Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson, whose town had a population of just 19,241 in 2011 compared to the 36,667 souls who currently reside in the Yukon, doesn’t seem to think size matters.

Earlier this month, Saunderson recommended his town should look at creating a registry, a proposal that has been discussed before, according to the Collingwood Connection.

“[This is about] making sure this community, and this council in particular, is constantly on the lookout for ways to improve our transparency and accountability,” he told the newspaper.

THROWING A BOOK AT THEM Canadian news outlets can seem shy about calling for greater freedom of information in this country – especially when measured against some of their American counterparts.

An example: earlier this month, Blytheville Courier News, which has a circulation of just over 4,000, sent freshmen elected officials in Arkansas a copy of the state’s freedom of information handbook.

The reason: according to the newspaper’s managing editor Mark Brasfield, “We feel it’s important to educate elected officials what the law requires regarding public records and public meetings.”

That’s because “many violators just simply do not know the law, which is not just a tool for members of the media, but anyone who wants a copy of a public record or is interested in attending a particular meeting.”

By comparison, three similarly-sized newspapers included in the Canadian Newsstand database – the Cranbrook Daily Townsman, the Nanaimo News Bulletin and the Sherbrooke Record – appear to have been much quieter about defending their readers’ right to know.

I searched those newspapers for articles with the words “access to information” and “freedom of information” in them over the past year. That search turned up just two opinion pieces pushing for more openness in government – an editorial from the Nanaimo News Bulletin and an op-ed that was published by the Sherbrooke Record but penned by the Quebec Professional Federation of Journalists.

SQUIBS (FEDERAL)

• Medicine Hat News reporter Peggy Revell juxtaposes the terrorist attack on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo with the federal government’s clampdown on information access, writing, “There’s more ways to muzzle freedom of speech than by the barrel of the gun, to end freedom not with a bang, but a whisper.”

• CBC News reports a Federal Court judge has ruled that records “filed by oil companies on safety-related incidents in the Newfoundland offshore can be kept off-limits from the public.”

• University of King’s College journalism professor Dean Cobb celebrates the 20th anniversary of a Supreme Court of Canada decision that ruled bans on publishing evidence presented in court “should be the exception, not the rule.”

• “A New Democrat MP is accusing Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander of thwarting her efforts to learn more about how the government deals with visa applications,” according to CBC News. (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Shareholder Association for Research and Education and Ryerson University’s Institute for the Study of Corporate Social Responsibility are hosting a panel discussion on political spending as a corporate issue. (hat tip: Samara Canada)

SQUIBS (PROVINCIAL)

• “All Freedom of Information requests submitted by journalists, opposition politicians and anyone who might publicly discuss their findings are singled out for special treatment by the province’s transportation ministry,” according to records obtained by the Toronto Sun.

• The Toronto Star reports a legislative loophole has allowed Ontario hospitals to “handle [privacy] violations internally” rather than reporting them to the province’s information and privacy commissioner.

• A National Post investigation has found that just a “tiny fraction of [medical errors] are publicly acknowledged and usually only in the form of antiseptic statistics. For most serious gaffes, not even the sparest of details is revealed, making the vast problem all but invisible.”

According to the Calgary Herald, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice has told reporters his government will be expanding its sunshine list to include high salaries at post-secondary institutions, school boards and Alberta Health Services.

• The Edmonton Journal reports, “Alberta’s Wildrose opposition has asked the Information and Privacy Commissioner to investigate after Alberta Justice revealed Wednesday the department sought to cancel outstanding access-to-information requests to address a severe backlog.”

• Ryerson’s new Privacy and Big Data Institute is holding an “inaugural seminar on Privacy by Design” on January 22. The institute is headed by former Ontario information and privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian.

SQUIBS (LOCAL)

• New Maryland Mayor Judy Wilson-Shee has told the Daily Gleaner the New Brunswick government should compensate local communities for the cost of responding to freedom of information requests. Wilson-Shee made that suggestion after an unnamed law firm filed a request for information that has involved village staff reading 2,000 pages, as well as a $3,000 legal bill. There are no fees associated with such requests in New Brunswick.

• The Edmonton Journal’s Paula Simons reports the city’s police force kept the homicide of 35-year-old aboriginal woman Freda Goodrunning a secret for four months, only telling the public about it at an “odd pre-Christmas news conference.” According to Simons, police have suggested that secrecy “somehow helped them.” But the columnist writes, “We don’t need more secrecy about the deaths of aboriginal women. We need more honesty. And more answers.”

• The Winnipeg Free Press reports, “The City of Winnipeg is rethinking its refusal to divulge part of the rationale for pursuing the $210-million Winnipeg police headquarters project.” The province’s ombudsman had earlier criticized that refusal.

• The Alberni Valley Times reports Port Alberni “could be releasing more information about closed-door meetings” if the British Columbia city’s councillors “approve a change to in-camera meetings.” A discussion about that change was scheduled to take place on January 12 but the minutes of that meeting have yet to be published.

• The Powell River Regional District’s board of directors is reviewing “what records are publicly available and what records require special written requests for release.” Audits and auditor reports are among the records that are currently only available via a freedom of information request, something that – according to the local newspaper  – appeared to surprise regional district director Russell Brewer.

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

GOVERNMENT TIGHT-LIPPED ABOUT YOUR RIGHT TO KNOW

You have a limited right to look through records like this. But the federal government has done little to help Canadians exercise those rights. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

You have a limited right to look through records like this. But the federal government has done little to promote those rights. (Photograph by Shutterstock.com)

In their recently published book Your Right to Know, journalists Jim Bronskill and David McKie have done yeomans’ work explaining how Canadians can use freedom of information requests to get government secrets. But, at the federal level, it’s work they shouldn’t have needed to do – pointing to another problem with Canada’s broken Access to Information Act.

Introduced in 1980 by Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals, that legislation gave Canadians a limited right to request government records. The bureaucracy’s filing cabinets could now metaphorically be opened by anyone – unless the records in them included 75 different kinds of information that would still be considered secret.

But, even with those limits, the Trudeau administration seemed to have little interest in telling voters about their newfound rights or how to exercise them.

Just before the Act came into force, the Globe and Mail told readers the government would be “placing posters in post offices and public libraries” to advertise the new program. But “it plans nothing else in the way of public information,” a deficiency noted by information commissioner Inger Hansen in her first annual report.

At a news conference announcing the fees for access to information requests, then-Liberal cabinet minister Herb Gray seemed unconcerned about that lack of advertising, smiling when he told reporters, “That’s why we invited you here.”

Nor did the government give the information commissioner the power to aid journalists in the job of educating the public about their information rights, with Hansen writing her office had no mandate or funding to do so.

As a result, Hansen stated, “The public appears unaware of the meaning of the Act and the role of the Information Commissioner to mediate complaints and take proceedings to the Federal Court. Indeed, many who have tried to use the Act soon gave up because the found procedures too complicated or too slow.”

Nevertheless, more than 30 years later, Hansen’s successors still don’t have that mandate, despite repeatedly requesting it. A spokesperson for the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, which administers the Access to Information Act, didn’t provide a direct answer when asked why those requests hadn’t been acted on.

By comparison, our country’s privacy commissioner can “foster public understanding” about the collection, use and disclosure of personal information by organizations outside government. Spending on that mandate totaled more than $3-million in the past fiscal year, with past expenditures resulting in the publication of a graphic novel and cartoons about privacy issues, as well as presentation packages for teachers and a youth video contest.

The government doesn’t currently publish anything comparable about Canadians’ access rights. The Treasury Board Secretariat spokesperson stated in an email that individual departments do have instructions on their Websites about how to file an access request, as well as a legal requirement to assist applicants. But the manual bureaucrats use to interpret and often restrict Canadians’ right to know dwarfs those brief instructions.

The secretariat’s access advice, for example, weighs in at just 389 words. But 57 of the manual’s 133 pages are devoted to what kinds of information must or can be kept secret. Moreover, the government currently doesn’t spend any money advertising Canadians’ information rights – instead relying on news releases, speeches and tweets to do that job.

As a result, responsibility for popularizing that right continues to be principally shouldered by journalists such as Bronskill and McKie, as well as the handful of non-governmental groups concerned with freedom of information issues.

So it’s near miraculous that, according to government statistics, 59,947 access requests were filed in the past fiscal year. But that still means just 169 requests were filed per 100,000 persons in Canada. By comparison, during 2012/13, 222 requests were filed per 100,000 persons in the United States.

That means Americans – who have considerably greater access to government records without using freedom of information requests – are using their right to know law 31 percent more than we are. And that’s probably just the way Canada’s paternalistic public officials want it.

After all, for them, the fewer Canadians who understand how to file freedom of information requests the better. At their best, the responses to those requests tell us what’s really happening behind the closed doors and drawn curtains of government. And, at their worst, they remind us just how little the government cares about our right to know – a secret parties of all stripes have been trying and failing to cover up for years.