SECRECY SCORES ELECTION WIN

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson wants you to ask him anything. But getting answers has proved difficult. (Photograph by Gregor Robertson)

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson wants you to ask him anything. But getting answers from his government has proven difficult. (Photograph by Gregor Robertson)

CLOSED DOORS DON’T RUIN RE-ELECTION CHANCES The result of Vancouver’s recent civic election may comfort federal Conservatives worried about their government’s reputation for secrecy.

Like the Tories, Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver party came to power after running on a platform that promised a more “open and accountable municipal government.”

Robertson also repeated that promise during his 2008 swearing-in speech, saying, “I will not let you down on making city hall more open and accountable.”

But, like the Tories, Robertson has let voters down.

For example, in its most recent freedom of information audit, Newspapers Canada gave Vancouver a “C for the extent of information it disclosed and an F for speed of responses.”

Journalists have also repeatedly and publicly complained about the city’s increasingly restrictive media relations policy.

Yet, even though Robertson’s competitors promised more transparency, voters returned the mayor and his party to power on Saturday — a feat the Tories may well repeat in 2015.

IS SECRECY REALLY A SURPRISE? Last week, in an editorial criticizing the Harper administration’s continued lack of transparency, the Globe and Mail told readers it’s surprising when a party “goes from promising more access to actively reducing it” once they form government.

But there are numerous examples suggesting the real surprise would be if that didn’t happen, with Robertson’s record as Vancouver’s mayor being just one of them.

Another: in 1993, Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien’s platform promised that “open government will be the watchword of the Liberal program.” Yet, when he came to power, the Liberals, like the Conservatives, did nothing to cure the country’s then ailing access to information system.

Instead, a 1999 report by right to know scholar Alasdair Roberts, found “it takes longer to process an FOI request today that at any point since adoption of the law in 1982.”

A year later, in his annual report to Parliament, information commissioner John Reid also accused the Chretien administration of having launched a “full counter-attack” against his legal and investigative resources.

Indeed, at the time, freedom of information researcher Ken Rubin wrote, “Chrétien wants no one…telling him to expose records the Prime Minister considers to be cabinet confidences, including his own daily movements” — a reference to  schedules his office was refusing to release.

I could go on, of course. But, instead, I’ll give this advice: rather than pillorying a single governing party or politicians for being excessively secretive, perhaps journalists, activists and Canadians should be more concerned about the political systems that allows for that secrecy in the first place.

SQUIBS

• The Canadian Press reports the “federal information watchdog is almost broke, weathering a cash crunch Suzanne Legault says threatens her ability to protect the rights of Canadians.” (hat tip: Mike De Souza)

• The Toronto Star skewers the federal government’s “Orwellian” open government action plan for being “so totally disconnected from reality that the initial reaction in the nation’s capital was incredulity.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Globe and Mail reports that environment lawyers say “the B.C. government appears to have systemically breached its freedom-of-information law by withholding information related to the collapse of the tailings dam at the Mount Polley mine.”

• According to the Vancouver Sun, British Columbia’s information and privacy commissioner “has agreed to investigate a second complaint that the B.C. government is illegally holding back documents related to the Mount Polley mine tailings dam collapse.” (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)

• The Ryerson Review of Journalism reports on how government secrecy is thwarting journalists investigating that collapse.

• The Georgia Straight reports it took nine months to obtain government records about the death of Mexican immigrant Lucia Vega Jiménez, who committed suicide while in the Canadian Border Services Agency’s custody.

• The Vancouver Sun reports those records show the agency decided “it would not tell the public of the incident…responding only if journalists asked questions.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)

• The Globe and Mail’s Andrea Woo highlights an email from the package in which the agency’s communications department “ponders how to answer questions about not answering questions” about its operations.

• The organizing committee for the 2015 Pan Am Games “wants more than $4,000 for access to information on the construction progress and delays on new, tax-funded sports facilities,” according to the Toronto Star. (hat tip: Kat Eschner)

• Bighorn Municipal District councillor Paul Ryan says it’s “very disturbing” that he can’t access government reports on the impact of industrial operations in his community. The Rocky Mountain Outlook quotes his as saying, “We can’t get anything back from the province, yet we have people in Hazmat suits running around” Exhshaw, a hamlet that’s part of the district.

• In a letter to the editor published in the Sherbrooke Record, Waterville, Que. resident Debra Martin writes that, in order to view a bylaw in her town, “one must make a written request in compliance with the access to information act, wait for a reply and then go to Town Hall from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. during the week — except for Wednesday mornings or Friday afternoons and the noon hour when they are closed.”

• Renu Mandhane, the director of the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, writes that “search fees in the thousands of dollars puts access to information outside the grasp of ordinary Canadians.” (hat tip: Laura Tribe)

• CBC News’s Dean Beeby writes that Canada’s Privy Council Office isn’t releasing a note to Prime Minister Stephen Harper about the travel costs for veterans attending the ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The government earlier announced it would pay up to $2,000 to help those veterans attending the ceremony in France — an amount that was later criticized.

• New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant doesn’t know why the Lobbyist Registration Act his government passed six months ago hasn’t been enacted, according to the Telegraph-Journal. But he’s told reporters, “I have asked the executive council office to give me an update on exactly where it is and where it has been stalled.”

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

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