Monday, May 05, 2008

Harper's debt to Jean Chrétien

Public access to government information has been made easier for several years now through a central registry system called the Co-ordination of Access to Information Requests System (CAIRS). Canadians could use CAIRS to see what information had already been made public or was in the process of being made available, and could then make a request to see the documents themselves.

The registry is the latest casualty of what has been portrayed by the Opposition, rightly I think, as a Conservative squid-ink strategy. Public information-seekers will now have to troll the government departments and agencies one by one, and reinvent a lot of wheels in making their requests.

Today Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended the shutting down of the system. It was too expensive, he said. His government has actually widened access to information, he said: it has opened up other agencies to the access process, including Canada Post and the CBC. And he cited the man who has originally opened up public access to CAIRS with an information request of his own, Alisdair Roberts. CAIRS, said Roberts in an opinion piece in 2003, was “the product of a political system in which centralized control is an obsession.” He was referring, of course, to the Chrétien Liberal government.

Now, there is something deliciously ironic about Harper waxing indignant about obsessive central control. But—hold your collective breath, possums—he’s got a point. Those of us who intensely dislike the Harper version of one-man rule should try to remember that the pioneer in this respect was a man who centralized all power in the Prime Minister’s Office and turned his Cabinet into little more than a focus group, as political economist Donald Savoie noted nearly a decade ago.

Roberts points out that CAIRS enabled the mandarins to track requests from journalists, and they used this power to the public detriment. It's worthwhile quoting a few paragraphs from his article to see just how bad things had become under the Liberals at the time:

Government officials claim this kind of internal monitoring does not affect the treatment of requests. But hard evidence suggests otherwise. A recent analysis shows that requests submitted by journalists or political parties often take much longer to process than others. The probability that a media request would exceed statutory deadlines was twice as high as for other requests.

Special handling could also mean more restrictive decisions about the release of material. At the very least, it means that senior officials have their "communications lines" ready weeks before sensitive material even hits the newspaper.

Controlling the flow of information is a second-best solution for ministers. From their point of view, the better approach is to make sure that information is never made accessible at all.

A few months after the Access to Information Act came into effect in 1983, the Privy Council Office reorganized cabinet documents to hide information that was supposed to be covered by the new law. Incredibly, the government got away with this for almost 20 years -- until April 2001, when the Federal Court of Canada called for an end to the practice, which it said was a "circumvention of the intent of Parliament."

In November 2001, the minister of justice used the al-Qaida attacks as a pretext for adding another loophole to the access law. Amendments in the Anti-Terrorism Act allow the minister to block full review of decisions to deny access in the name of national security. Only a few months before, researchers hired by the federal government had said that such changes were unnecessary.

The Chretien government has also transferred key government functions to organizations that aren't subject to the Access to Information Act at all. The agency that is responsible for running our national air traffic control system has no obligation to respond to requests for information. Neither does the agency that runs our national blood system, or the new organization that will develop a plan for disposing of waste from Canada's nuclear power plants. The government says that the public has no legitimate interest that would justify granting a right of access to information in these cases.

Roberts is now asking what the present government is going to replace CAIRS with:

How does the [Privy Council Office Communications] and its security and intelligence office keep track of incoming requests? How do key departments keep track of sensitive requests arriving elsewhere? Have they established new processes for doing this?

That's a very good question. Can it be that Harper is planning to establish a new centralized internal process for his officials, one shielded from public use? It hardly seems in character to abandon such a handy spin tool as CAIRS, but of course that was a two-edged sword, with public access perhaps the sharper of the two edges. It will be interesting to keep an eye on developments in this respect, perhaps with the adroit use of access to information requests.

In the meantime, Chrétien's legacy, alas, lives on. Donald Savoie is still documenting the collapse of our institutions of governance:

There are no effective checks and balances from cabinet, the civil service or Parliament to protect prime ministers from grabbing power and abusing it. We now need to go farther and define in law the role of prime minister, ministers and the civil service.

Savoie's interview in the Ottawa Citizen today is well worth reading in full. Our government is now effectively a royal government, he says, a king surrounded by a tightly knit group of courtiers. But Harper has the little man from Shawinigan to thank for making it all possible.

No comments: