Inside Politics

Will a majority mean a more open government?

There has been much speculation and angst about what direction a Stephen Harper majority government might take.

Perhaps anticipating the question, he addressed the matter during this victory speech by indicating that people "don't like surprises," which may mean doing what he said he would do: balancing the books a year sooner than expected; passing the budget that was put on hold by the election; introducing an anti-crime package; changing the way parties are financed; and perhaps reforming the Senate.

I'd like to suggest one more item for his menu: opening up government by empowering bureaucrats to release more information, and making that task even easier by reforming the Access to Information Act.

The Conservatives rode to power in 2006 promising more openness in the wake of the Liberal sponsorship scandal. But something happened along the way. Stephen Harper's government found itself fending off accusations that it had become secretive, despite the legitimate argument that it had made more federal institutions, including the CBC and Canada Post, subject to the Act. Perhaps the precariousness of successive minority governments was to blame, or maybe it was the realization that it's safer to hold on to information than release it.

Whatever the reason, an argument can be made that now might be an ideal time for Harper to actually enhance the very open government initiative that his administration unveiled just before the election. In other words, elevate the concept of open government way beyond simply making it easier to gain access to department websites.

"I think the fact that there's a majority will allow him some breathing room that isn't just focused on the political side," says Anne Game, executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), in the wake of a report by her organization that gives the government a failing grade for its lack of openness.

Game strikes a hopeful tone that belies the conclusions her organization reached about the Harper government and its attitude towards access to information. For the second year in a row, the CJFE graded the government's commitment to, among other things, access to information.

And for the second year in a row, the government failed, this time an earning an F-minus.

"Unfortunately, the problem isn't isolated to the court system, or even to the province," the report notes. "Despite the promises laid out by the Access to Information Act, getting information out of any number of government bodies... is neither straightforward nor timely."

To reach this conclusion, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression collected information from a number of sources, including the Information Commissioner and journalists such as yours truly.

In this space, I have chronicled the difficulty journalists have had obtaining information, and noted that this difficulty may be contributing to a disturbing trend: fewer journalists are using the Act.

What's surprising about CJFE's recent report is that it's worse than the 2009 report card that gave the government an F due to problems that have become all too familiar, including significant delays in responding to requests and refusals to release anything at all.

"We remain bedeviled," the report concluded, "by the antics of those federal entities that invoke national security at the drop of a hat to restrict the dissemination of vital information to journalists and, in turn, the public."

Anne Game says her group has collected enough information to reach some disturbing conclusions that constitute "a warning" about the government's commitment to access to information.

Then why is she also sounding an optimistic note?

Well, this takes us back to my initial observations. She feels that hoarding information made it easier to govern for a Prime Minister who hates "surprises." Keeping email correspondence, reports and briefing notes under lock and key meant there would be no politically embarrassing stories, or at least the number of them would be kept to a minimum.

Delaying the release of information until after a crisis had passed meant minimizing the potential for political damage, and, therefore, depriving political adversaries bent on forcing an election of any ammunition.

To be fair, Liberal prime ministers also controlled information, even when they had majorities.

Jean Chretien even shut down an inquiry into the Somalia affair in the mid-'90s, a time during which the department of National Defence became infamous for finding ingenious ways to impede the flow of information.

But things are different now. Stephen Harper has his long-coveted "stable, majority government." And he did once promise to run a government more open than that of any Liberal administration. Political observers surmise not having to worry about elections means Harper can govern in a less combative and less partisan way, which, from an information standpoint, could mean allowing his ministers more latitude to talk to reporters, which would send a signal to federal bureaucrats that it's okay to do the same.

And, more importantly, sending a signal to the senior mandarins to err on the side of making information public, something that the information commission has been pleading with the government to do. If Harper is more receptive to the recommendations of Suzanne Legault and the information commissioners who occupied the post in previous years, perhaps he will instruct his justice minister to amend the law and open up access.

Opening up government is not just an esoteric conversation for people inside the Parliamentary precinct, or the bubble that is Ottawa. If there's one lesson we learned from this past election it is that it is possible for people, especially a new generation of voters, to be engaged. The government needs such engagement if it's going to make important decisions about big-ticket items such as the environment, the economy, justice and health care. People need information in order to become knowledgeable about these issues and hold their leaders accountable.

So let's hope that Anne Game from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression is right to turn two negative report cards into a clarion call for something better. If she's right, the government will not only score higher on the next report card, but citizens, experts and politicians will be better positioned to have a real dialogue, based on real information about the issues that polls tell us Canadians care about.

Now wouldn't that be a legacy for any prime minister to be proud of?

David McKie can be reached at
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