A LITTLE REFORM DOESN’T GO A LONG WAY The Harper administration’s second open government action plan was rightly pilloried last week for not including any plans to fix the country’s long broken Access to Information Act. But it’s important to remember that, even though the Liberals and the NDP both introduced private members bills to amend that act, the Grit’s proposal has significant limitations.
For example, that proposal states “exceptions to the right of access should be rare.” But it does very little to change the exemptions and exclusions in the Act that let government frustrate access requests and keep their most sensitive records out of the public eye.
On that score, the NDP’s bill, which was defeated on second reading, was considerably more reformist. It would have allowed for greater access to records about advice and recommendations developed by or for the government, as well as its positions and plans. Accounts of consultations and deliberations involving the government would have also become more accessible and so would some cabinet records.
So while the Conservatives deserve a drubbing for continuing to run a backroom state, the Liberals don’t look like they would throw open the curtains of government if they won power.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE SOME NUMBERS COULD MAKE Thanks to party discipline, caucus secrecy and cabinet confidentiality, it’s often difficult to tell the difference between our legislators — and hold them to account. After all, those representatives are usually only allowed to speak out on behalf of their constituents and their own conscience during closed door meetings. Outside those meetings, they’re expected to toe the party line.
But what would happen if our legislators were required to publish an annual report that included statistics measuring their performance on everything from their voting behaviour to how much government money they were bringing into their constituency?
The United Kingdom’s Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority suggested something similar last year. And now British Conservative MP Jesse Norman has given his constituents an example of what such a report might look like, showing everything from how many public constituency events he’s attended to how many questions he’s asked in the House of Commons.
Just think how much more helpful that information would be if it was independently audited and British voters were able to compare his statistics to those of other MPs. Moreover, there’s nothing that would stop Canadian legislators from doing the same thing — except a desire to maintain the anonymity that both protects and disempowers them.
PUBLIC SERVANTS OR PARTY EMPLOYEES? Former government scientist Michael Rennie has admirably spoken out against the policies that prevent his ex-colleagues from talking about their research. But, in doing so, he appeared to speak in favour of a common assumption that I believe may have contributed to the creation of those policies.
In an op-ed published in the Ottawa Citizen, Rennie wrote that when he was working for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, he would refer media requests for comment to the department’s communications officers. But “these requests were typically met with silence.”
That’s one of the reasons why he wants to see changes to the “current communications policies and practices are doing little to facilitate open scientific dialogue in the federal public service.”
Nevertheless, Rennie stated, “It’s reasonable to expect that a public servant would not be publicly critical of their employer, or the policies they represent.”
Yet what happens when a government scientist’s research implicitly criticizes their employer or such policies? Should lips be sealed about that work or should it be shared?
And why do some Canadians seem to assume those public servants are working for whatever party is in power rather than the people?
After all, if we took the later perspective, then there arguably wouldn’t be anything wrong with them being critical of public policies that weren’t in the public interest.
In fact, it would be irresponsible of them not to.
STAR PUMPS COMMISSIONER’S PRIVACY ROLE Earlier, I reported on how journalists routinely describe Canada’s information and privacy commissioners as “privacy watchdogs” or “privacy commissioners” even when those officials are dealing with right to know issues.
The latest example comes to us from the Toronto Star, which reported last week that “Investigators from the provincial privacy commissioner’s office have interviewed staff at the Toronto school board after allegations surfaced that trustees interfered and tampered with a document requested by the Star under the freedom of information act.”
Yet that investigation has nothing to do with commissioner’s privacy protection role and everything to do with his responsibility to uphold the public’s information access rights.
• In a column for the Huffington Post, Dawson College history professor Frederic Bastien contrasts the federal Conservative’s championing of Canada’s past with their refusal to make archival information available to historians. (hat tip: Ian Bron)
• The Georgia Straight’s Travis Lupick uses his own dealings with the Canadian Border Services Agency as an example of how federal agencies “routinely hide information from the public.”
• The Tyee is ignoring a government demand to stop publishing “personal information” contained in internal health ministry emails that were leaked to the online magazine. (hat tip: Ian Bron)
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.