CLASSIFYING INFO HAS “NOTHING TO DO WITH THE PUBLIC”

In 1976, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his House Leader Mitchell Sharp were accused of being instinctive suppressors of information. (Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Between 1965 and 1980, the federal Liberals did their upmost to defend their government from those who attacked its secrecy. Some officials claimed their government was more open than it actually was, while others tried to justify its closed door meetings and locked filing cabinets. But one of the most absurd defences of that secrecy was mounted by President of the Privy Council and Government House Leader Mitchell Sharp during an appearance on CTV’s Question Period. Responding to a question posed by panellist and Toronto Star columnist Richard Gwyn, Sharp said:

“The reason that documents in the public service are marked ‘secret,’ ‘confidential,’ ‘restricted’ is for internal purposes, not for public purposes. A document that is secret may at some time be published. The reason for it being marked secret is so that it only circulates within a very, very small circle within the government, or even top secret documents that circulate within an even smaller – for example, I receive on my desk ‘secret,’ ‘top secret – to be opened by addressee only.’ Now the reason for that is so that even my secretary doesn’t know what is in it. There’s nothing to do with the public.”1Bruce Phillips et al., Interview with Mitchell Sharp, Question Period, Ottawa, ON: CJOH-TV, July 18, 1976.

But Charles Lynch, chief of Southam News Services and another program panellist, called Sharp out for that doublespeak:

“Of course it has to do with the public. I suggest that it brings an attitude of suppression into your mind. I regard you as an instinctive suppressor of information. But still more do I regard [Prime Minister Pierre] Trudeau as one. He is so obsessive about it. He loves secret dealings and he despises disclosure. The cabinet secrecy is a sacred thing with him and this is the problem…”2Bruce Phillips et al., Interview with Mitchell Sharp, Question Period, Ottawa, ON: CJOH-TV, July 18, 1976.

Four years later, the Liberals would introduce the Access to Information Act, a seeming concession to the country’s right to know advocates. But, today, cabinet secrecy seems even more sacred than it was back then. And can you imagine any journalist today calling a cabinet minister an “instinctive suppressor of information” to their face? All of which makes me wonder just how much of a concession that legislation actually was.

References   [ + ]

1, 2. Bruce Phillips et al., Interview with Mitchell Sharp, Question Period, Ottawa, ON: CJOH-TV, July 18, 1976.

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