[Democracy Watch Logo] [Op-ed]

The following opinion piece, by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher, was published in slightly different form in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record on May 16, 2007, in the Hill Times on May 21, 2007, and in VUE Weekly (Calgary's news and entertainment weekly newspaper) on May 31, 2007

Sunshine is a good disinfectant against dishonest, unethical, wasteful and unjust government:
Recent scandals show how much open government measures are needed

Recent federal government secrecy and leaks scandals have highlighted how loophole-filled and ineffective the government's access-to-information system -- and the related spending and donations control, ethics enforcement, lobbying disclosure and whistleblower protection systems -- are.

Politicians and political staff regularly "leak" government announcements in advance to hand-picked reporters and media outlets without any negative consequences (even though the leaked documents are often inaccurate and aimed at "spinning" false media coverage), but public servants who do the same are investigated by the RCMP for breach of trust.

Security officials keep key information secret for more than 20 years about how and why an enormous disaster occurred, and bizarrely some applaud them when they finally go public.

Spending by senators on a publicly funded trip is considered private, personal information that can't be disclosed, while spending by a minister on a publicly funded trip is considered departmental information that doesn't have to be disclosed.

And tracking how Canadians imprisoned in other countries are treated is a top priority, while information about how Afghanis arrested by Canadian armed forces are treated is top secret.

These disgustingly ridiculous situations are just the latest in literally thousands of similar past situations, and all are the fault of all federal governments throughout the history of Canada as none of them have taken steps to ensure everyone in the government operates openly.

Most recently, then-Liberal Justice Minister Allan Rock broke his 1994 pledge to strengthen the federal Access to Information Act (ATI Act), former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien broke his pledge to pass a whistleblower protection law, and the Liberals delayed increasing disclosure of lobbying for 10 years. And Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper broke his 2006 election promises to include measures in his so-called "Accountability Act" to close a few dozen loopholes in the ATI Act, to end secret lobbying, and to protect all whistleblowers effectively (To see the details about the ethics complaint Democracy Watch filed about the Conservatives' breaking their election promises concerning Bill C-2, the so-called "Accountability Act", click here).

These broken promises reveal one of the most fundamental loopholes in the open government system -- the lack of a requirement that parties and party leaders tell the public clearly what they will do (and will not do) if they are elected, and the lack of penalties for misleading the public in this fundamental way.

While other parties and politicians have accused the Conservatives and Harper of having a secret agenda, the truth all voters should face (a truth shown clearly throughout Canadian history) is that all of the parties and politicians have secret plans they donít want to reveal to voters until after election day.

Beyond the lack of an effective honesty-in-politics law, the following measures are needed to end the cult of secrecy in the federal government (and, as well, in most Canadian provincial, territorial and municipal governments):

  • all government bodies must be covered by openness rules (including all bodies funded mainly by the government), and required to create a detailed record of all decisions and actions (as the Conservatives promised);
  • all government bodies must be required by a new law to consult with the public in an honest, open manner before making decisions or undertaking actions (including disclosing the options the government is considering, and costs and benefits);
  • all government bodies must be required to have an information management system that regularly discloses most information, and that can produce information deemed secret for review by the Information Commissioner within the 30-day legal limit;
  • the Information Commissioner must be given the power to review and order the release of all information (as in Ontario, Alberta and B.C.) if it will not cause any harm (as the Conservatives promised);
  • everyone in government must be required to disclose the detailed receipt for every expense they claim (showing the number of people involved in any activity, what was purchased, by whom, and at what price) and the Auditor General must be given the power to audit all claims;
  • everyone in a decision-making position in government must be required (as the Conservatives promised) to disclose the identity of anyone who communicates with them or their staff as part of a lobbying effort and to disclose a summary of the communication, and lobbyists must be required to disclose how much they spend on lobbying campaigns, and the Registrar of Lobbyists must be made fully independent of Cabinet (as the Conservatives promised);
  • secret, unlimited donations to nomination race and party leadership race candidates must be banned (and such races run by Elections Canada and all donations regularly audited by the Commissioner of Elections), and donations of volunteer labour and financial loans to all candidates, riding associations and parties must be limited and disclosed and audited;
  • the proposed Parliamentary Budget Officer must be made fully independent to ensure truth in government budgetting;
  • the federal Ethics Commissioner and Senate Ethics Officer must be banned from giving secret advice or rulings, and required to conduct audits of financial statements submitted to them;
  • everyone in government must be required to report wrongdoing, and the Public Sector Integrity Officer must be given the power to protect all whistleblowers from retaliation (currently, because the Conservatives broke their election promises, only some government employees are protected if they report some types of wrongdoing in specific ways), and;
  • all of the watchdog officers mentioned above must be given the power to fine violators of rules with high fines, suspensions and firings.
These solutions to the multi-faceted problem of government secrecy are well-identified, many are well-tested (as they have been tried elsewhere), and all could be as easily and quickly passed by federal MPs as their frequent self-approved pay raises.

In the minority federal government situation that has existed since June 2004, there are even fewer barriers to making these changes as any partyís proposals have the possibility of being passed.

With this upcoming July 1st marking 140 years of secretive Canadian federal governments (and, as a result, often dishonest, unethical, wasteful and unjust governments), the questions remain, as always -- is there a federal political party that will clearly propose these solutions in a bill, and will all the parties work together to ensure the bill is passed as soon as possible?

Or will they all just continue, as they have for decades, to point the finger at each otherís scandalously secret behaviour?

As the old saying goes, sunshine is a good disinfectant -- one can only hope that it is strong enough for federal politicians to feel the heat so they will, finally, open up the federal government and, in doing so, clean it up in a lot of ways as well.

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