If you’ve been a reader of this site, you’ll know I’ve been busy working on a dissertation about the early history of freedom of information in Canada. So I’m very excited to announce I’ll be sharing some findings from that work next week. This coming Thursday, I’ll be presenting a paper entitled “The falling currency of democracy: information as an instrument of control and certainty in the postwar and post-truth eras” at Mount Royal University and Medicine Hat College’s second Liberal Education Conference. This year’s conference theme is “Can a liberal education make you a better discerner of the truth?”
IS THERE SUCH A THING AS BEING TOO POLITE? The past four years have seen two failed attempts by MPs to reform question period — both of which included measures that would have resulted in more decorum in the House of Commons. But new research suggests future would-be reformers might want to be careful they don’t bring too much civility to our legislatures.
In an article for Democratic Audit UK, former New Zealand political advisor and University of Michigan political science professor Rob Salmond writes that his data shows, “More spontaneous, combative question times are associated with higher levels of voter turnout, deeper partisan attachments, and higher levels of political knowledge. These relationships hold even when accounting for many other factors known to affect political engagement.”
By comparison, according to Salmond, “More ‘serious’ question times, often featuring longer questions and answers that can all be prepared in advance, do relatively little to promote public political engagement.” Although they likely result in less bruised-feelings on the part of politicians.
SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE Canada’s information commissioner Suzanne Legault has long-wanted the legal power to raise public awareness about the Access to Information Act. But archival material recently posted online by her office provides a reminder that she isn’t the only one to have put that power on a wish list.
For example, in her very first annual report, Canada’s first information commissioner Inger Hansen wrote that “one of the most serious problems” with the Act was Canadians’ lack of understanding of it.
Hansen appeared to blame the government for lack of understanding, writing that a “press conference was held when the Act came into effect but no other announcements or explanations have been disseminated to the public.”
But the commissioner stated she couldn’t pick up that slack because her office didn’t have the authority to “actively engage in public education and no funds will be allocated for such activities.”
Nevertheless, Hansen recommended, “Either the government, or the Commissioner, should actively inform the public of the meaning of the Act, the rights it grants to individuals and the importance of those rights in a modern democratic society.”
HOPES GO ASTRAY In that first annual report, Hansen withheld judgement of the Access to Information Act — even though contemporaries had described the legislation as “no good,” “a big disappointment” and a “farce.” But she was more forthcoming in her final annual report, published six years later.
Mirroring modern concerns about the Act, Hansen wrote that she remains convinced “the political will in support of freedom of information could be stronger,” “the bureaucratic resistance to freedom of information could be weaker” and that “the tendency to withhold government information should give way to attitudes favouring its disclosure.”
MIC CHECK What is the future of the news industry? How are reporters being impacted by the absence of data and information in Canada? Does our country have a lazy citizenry?
Those are just some the questions I pondered last week while speaking with Paul Holmes and John Juricic, the hosts of John, Paul and Mic. It’s a new Victoria-based weekly podcast covering “ideas, discussions and innovations in politics, technology and society.”
You can check out that episode here.
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.
When journalists complain about Canada’s freedom of information system, we often fault its costs, the currency of the responses we receive, as well as their completeness.
After all, it’s not uncommon to be asked to pay hundreds of dollars to process a request, wait months for a response and receive pages and pages of blanked out records. But these are mere symptoms of the disease plaguing Canada’s freedom of information system — a disease whose causes can be traced to the political and social culture of this country.
I’ll be speaking more about that issue tomorrow afternoon with former Vancouver Sun managing editor Kirk LaPointe at the Canadian Association of Journalists annual convention, which gets underway today in Vancouver. You can tune in here on Saturday at 3:15 to follow the live blog of that workshop.
In addition, I’ll be hosting J-Fest on Friday evening at 7:00. It’s a celebration of the some of the best reporting in British Columbia, with Times Colonist’s Lindsay Kines, former Province editorial cartoonist Dan Murphy and Fractured Land filmmaker Damien Gillis giving the stories behind the stories they covered or opined on. Tickets to the event, which takes place at the Holiday Inn Vancouver Downtown, are $5 at the door.
I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be speaking to the Canadian Open Data Summit.
The summit, which will take place at the Simon Fraser University Segal Graduate School of Business on February 21, is a forum for discussing how to use, connect to and access open data.
My talk will focus on the political and cultural barriers to that process in Canada, the Unknowable Country.
Other speakers will include Vancouver Sun data journalist Chad Skelton, Open Data Institute technical director Jeni Tennison and Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat open government director Sylvain Latour.
“Inside baseball.” When I covered politics in British Columbia, I often heard that term used to dismiss stories about the lack of openness and accountability in Canada’s predominant political system. But I think those stories should have a centre field position in the press and among the people. I’ll be talking about why Friday morning on Victoria radio station CFAX 1070 at 8:20 PT with talk show host Ryan Price.