Here's a thought, what if governments weren't so secret?

A little government secrecy may be essential, but even some of the country's former top mandarins say it has been greatly overused, Neil Macdonald writes. How do we trust the new folks in power to get it right?

A little government secrecy is essential, but even former mandarins say it is greatly overused

Canada's new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau applauds during the swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall on Nov. 4. It's yes-minister time now. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

As Justin Trudeau and his new cabinet were sworn in last week, and the crowd outside Rideau Hall cheered and hugged and danced the Harper-is-history jig, not much attention was paid to the words the nation's new leaders were actually uttering.

There were, of course, the weirdly anachronistic vows of fidelity to the "Queen of Canada and her heirs and successors," which nobody really seems to take that seriously. (In fact, Stephane Dion, the new foreign affairs minister, demonstrated his fealty to the Queen of Canada by ordering her portrait immediately removed from the main lobby of his headquarters on Sussex Drive.)

But the oath-takers also swore something much more serious: to "keep secret all matters committed and revealed to me" during the discussions of Privy Council, "or that shall be secretly treated of in Council."

Which means pretty much everything they're told. In Canada, the Privy Council is an abstruse concept that can stretch to encompass whatever the prime minister wants it to.

The last PM took a view that would have made the mutton-chopped mandarins and ministers of 19th-century Whitehall grunt their approval.

Stephen Harper essentially instructed his cabinet and officials that everything was a secret unless specifically exempted, and such exemptions were exceedingly rare.

Harper believed in the old and most elitist vision of democracy: that you govern on behalf of the electors, not at their behest.

In other words, once they elect you, what you do is none of their business until the next election.

Justin Trudeau has implied he will take a more progressive view, closing the distance between the government and the governed. Sunny ways and all that.

More open or just more crowd friendly? Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has his photo taken with well-wishers by his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau after the swearing-in ceremony earlier this month. ( Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

We shall see. Certainly, he's issued directives unmuzzling public servants and allowing his ministers to speak to reporters, even when they don't seem to have much to say.

But at the same time, senior members of the bureaucracy have no doubt been sitting their ministers down and explaining the importance of secrecy, how it greases the system at almost every level, from ordinary departmental communications to Canada's relations with other nations, and how its embedded permanence in the warp and woof of government is crucial.

Secrecy is a fascinating subject. Information is generally more prized when it's secret. It enhances the standing of the person who possesses it.

The journalist's view is that while secrecy is sometimes necessary, most obviously to protect military or national security operations, it is far more commonly used to camouflage the inherent hypocrisies involved in governing.

'Courageous advice'

That view assumes that government is often a stinky business, that it necessarily involves tradeoffs best kept hidden and public misdirection or even lies, and that the more voters see of what's actually going on, the more distasteful they will find it.

It's the sausage factory analogy: you don't want to see what the sausages are stuffed with.

I called Alex Himelfarb about this.

He's a former clerk of the Privy Council, which is the most senior of all public servants. He has administered the oaths, advised three prime ministers and knows the secret machinations of government intimately.

He says secrecy is essential and, at the same time, greatly overused.

Ministers and officials, he says, need to be able to speak frankly.

Former Clerk of the Privy Council Alex Himelfarb, right, administers the oath of office to new Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006 as then governor general Michaelle Jean looks on. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

Around the cabinet table, he says, it may be that somebody wants to talk back to the prime minister.

"It may be that somebody there wants to say 'I hate what you're doing. This is terribly, terribly wrong.' You want people to be free to say to the PM 'that's a pile of garbage' and know that the opinion will not be leaked and used against the government later," he says.

"It is important to have zones in which courageous advice can be given freely."

That said, he acknowledges "we have inappropriately expanded the need for legitimate zones to a massive extent. They now include message control and avoidance of personal responsibility."

No one actually owns up to that, he says. It's a deeper, unacknowledged reality, down in the marrow of the culture.

Moreover, he says, the holders of the deepest secrets often become "absolutely convinced that they are not only working for the people, but that they are the best people to judge whether something should be secret."

Generational shift?

Perhaps surprisingly, though, Himelfarb believes all of that is changing, and government must accommodate and manage what's coming, or be overwhelmed.

WikiLeaks, social media, the advent of bloggers and citizen journalists determined to root out information, and a relentless 24-hour mass media are now arrayed against the old forces of mutton-chopped secrecy.

Bureaucracies at first react by shifting defences; they respond to WikiLeaks and access-to-information laws by ensuring less is written down, or by becoming even more controlling.

But Himelfarb, for one, believes we are in the midst of a generational attitude shift. Younger people expect — demand, in fact — to be included in the process of government between elections.

Many of Trudeau's new ministers may well be inclined to grant that, given that so many are unschooled in governing. Their lack of experience is also a lack of baggage.

Some have worked outside government, Himelfarb observes, and may have even been victimized by government.

But ultimately, it's the prime minister who gets to decide what those oaths taken at Rideau Hall will mean in reality.

If bureaucrats sense that loosening the flow of information to the public is not just OK but actually career enhancing, and that government's boss of bosses wants more open government, open government will be more likely.

The trick, says Himelfarb, is to ensure that only those secrets that must truly remain secret for the proper functioning of government are shielded.

Perhaps. But again, the journalist's view: Information is power. Politics is the exercise of power. Secrecy allows information, and therefore power, to be hoarded and preserved.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?