Monthly Archives: August 2018

IS CABINET CONFIDENTIALITY REASONABLE?

Social scientist Alex C. Michalos was among those who questioned the notion of cabinet confidentiality in the 1970s. (Photograph by University of Northern British Columbia)

If you think about it, the whole notion of cabinet confidentiality is pretty anti-democratic. It means Canadians don’t have any right to know what happens inside the government’s most important decision-making body. We only have a right to know what our government lets us know. Moreover, members of cabinet who disagree with the decisions it makes have to pretend they agree in public. And that means they may have to lie to the very people who elected them.

Yet, in Canada, questioning cabinet confidentiality rarely seems to happen. And, when it does, such questioning is often branded as radical at best and foolish at worst. Indeed, in 1979, the eminent Canadian political scientist Donald V. Smiley observed, “No informed person suggests that the proceedings of the cabinet should be published.”1Donald V. Smiley, “Freedom of Information: Rationales and Proposals for Reform,” in Freedom of Information: Canadian Perspectives, ed. John D. McCamus, 1981), 16.

However, between the mid-sixties and early eighties, informed people were actually making such suggestions. Among them was social scientist Alex C. Michalos. In a brief prepared for the Ontario Commission on Freedom of Information and Individual Privacy, Michalos, who was then a philosophy professor at the University of Guelph, took issue with the claim that differences between cabinet ministers must be resolved in the strictest confidence, writing:

This is assertion without justification. It is possible to have ‘stability and cohesion’ while admitting honest difference. Does anyone expect a monolithic set of views out of a Cabinet? It seems to be greater ‘stability and cohesion’ would be displayed by the honest display of differences of opinion which are occasionally comprised in the public interest. To pretend that there are no disagreements within an organization is dishonest in the first place, and self-destructive in the second. Instead of preaching rational debate and accommodation, we will be preaching authoritarianism and control. Instead of displaying a model of reasonable people struggling over difficult problems with conflicting but legitimate points of view, we will be displaying a model of rigid people struggling to control diversity with secrecy. How can this help? How can we in good conscience give this example to our children and our neighbours?2Alex C. Michalos, “A Brief to the Commission on Freedom of Information and Individual Privacy.” (unpublished submission), July 1977.

How indeed? Yet, that’s exactly what we’ve continued to do. And it’s well-past time for Canadians to change that.

References   [ + ]

1. Donald V. Smiley, “Freedom of Information: Rationales and Proposals for Reform,” in Freedom of Information: Canadian Perspectives, ed. John D. McCamus, 1981), 16.
2. Alex C. Michalos, “A Brief to the Commission on Freedom of Information and Individual Privacy.” (unpublished submission), July 1977.

WHAT NEVER? HARDLY EVER!

The American government was declassifying millions of pages of documents while the Canadian government was still trying to keep most of its documents secret. (Photograph by Office of the National Archives)

For all its faults, the United States government has almost aways proven more open than our own government in Canada. And, in 1976, Philip Chaplin, the senior research officer of the directorate of history at Canada’s National Defence headquarters in Ottawa, sketched out a dramatic and somewhat depressing illustration of that difference.

In a paper entitled “Well, Hardly Ever! A Response to the Plaintive Question: Does Anyone Ever Declassify Anything?” Chaplin wrote, “As far as I know (and I am in a position to hear of such things) I am the only full-time public servant in the country who put a (sic) least half of his past year’s work into declassification.”1Philip Chaplin, “Well, Hardly Ever! A Response to the Plaintive Question: Does Anyone Ever Declassify Anything?” (unpublished paper, April 1976), 1 By comparison, when he visited the declassification division of the United States National Archives, he found that “with a staff of 100, they expected to have reviewed 160,000,000 pages of 30 year old records in just over three years ending on 31 December 1975 at a cost of $4,500,000.”2Ibid, 3

Nor did Canadian officials seem particularly concerned about this difference. Chaplin’s paper was prepared for a Public Service Commission seminar that was supposed to take place between April 12-13, 1976. But that seminar was cancelled for lack of interest.”3Ibid, 7

References   [ + ]

1. Philip Chaplin, “Well, Hardly Ever! A Response to the Plaintive Question: Does Anyone Ever Declassify Anything?” (unpublished paper, April 1976), 1
2. Ibid, 3
3. Ibid, 7

MEASURING TRUDEAU’S COMMITMENT TO OPENNESS

 

The federal Liberals like to claim they’re commitment to being more open and democratic. But how can we tell if they actually are? (Image by Liberal Party of Canada)

At the very least, you’ve got to admire the federal government’s open government team’s chutzpah. Despite the Trudeau administration’s utterly unsurprising failure to keep its election promises to be open by default and reform our electoral system, late last month the team enthusiastically asked civil society members for feedback on its draft open government commitments.

Those commitments include a promise to review the Access to Information Act, which has already been extensively reviewed since it was passed in 1982. The government also states it will implement activities to “strengthen democracy in Canada.” But those activities remain unidentified.

Such non-reforms are as expected as they are frustrating. And I’m sure I’m not the only transparency advocate who felt that way. That said, I do appreciate the approach the open government team has taken during this consultation process, providing us with an opportunity to comment on its proposals via Google Docs. As a result, I thought it might be helpful to share what I think are the two things the Trudeau administration would have to do to demonstrate it was serious about being more open and democratic:

1. Reduce the number of secret spaces in government

It is not an understatement to say we are blind to much of what our sitting government does. Right now, we have no right to know what happens in its cabinet, the government’s top decision-making body. We have no right to know what happens in its cabinet ministers’ offices. And we have no right to know what recommendations are being made to those ministers by government employees. In short, we have no right to know why our government makes the decisions it makes. We only know what our government decides to tell us. Moreover, our right to know what our government knows about corporations, federal-provincial affairs, international affairs, defence and law enforcement is often limited. All this is odd for a supposed democracy. So, if the government wanted to be more open, it would do something about this.

2. Reduce the government’s power to do whatever it wants

Party discipline is the practice whereby all representatives from the same party vote together in Parliament. In combination with cabinet solidarity, it means a government with a majority of MPs in the House of Commons can often do whatever it wants. And, because our first-past-the-post voting system almost always produces such majorities, that’s usually the rule rather than the exception. This has the affect of making government resistant to public, press and opposition opinion between elections. Again, this is odd for a supposed democracy. As such, if the Trudeau administration wanted to be more democratic, it would do something about this too.

That said, these are hard things for any government to do because it means giving up control. And that’s even more difficult now because the informed, rational and empathetic decision-making that’s supposed to be the foundation of democracy is being undermined. But part of the reason for that is people don’t feel they have any control over an economic and political system that seems rigged against them. That’s why the work of the open government team is so important. I just wish the Trudeau administration would recognize that.