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Harper legacy? It ain’t transparency

last modified Oct 11, 2011 12:00 AM

Source: hilltimes.com

Date: 10 October 2011

(The International Conference of Information Commissioners held in Ottawa last week helped illustrate just how far behind Canada has fallen in progressive access to information circles. It’s not good.)

By KEN RUBIN Hill Times| Oct. 10, 2011 OTTAWA—A just-released Newspapers Canada Freedom of Information national audit as well an international country-by-country audit still have Canada’s access legislation placed near the bottom. A further international report of 80 countries’ responses to fairly routine financial questions by the same outfits—Access Information Europe and the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy—have put Canada’s budget openness and help in the bottom half of countries, despite Canada being an established democracy with a better than average economy.

With a majority government, Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems to relish moving even further away from raising Canada’s poor government transparency rating. It is simply getting more difficult to access government data and have a good understanding of how this government operates and spends.

It is hardly encouraging that Harper’s minister responsible for open federal data, Treasury Board President Tony Clement, isn’t about to be more accountable. His G8/G20 summertime multi-million dollar spending spree for local beautification works in his Muskoka riding have raised many questions, especially after municipal freedom of information replies provided to the opposition NDP revealed irregular spending practices. Both Clement and PM Harper are stating that there is no new material to provide on those expenses.

On the other hand, the Tory majority in the House of Commons Access to Information Committee has decided this fall to hold hearings on CBC spending secrecy, demanding that CBC explain its less than stellar access to information record. There is much irony in this in that it was Harper’s Accountability Act that permitted the CBC to exclude information of a journalistic, creative, or programming nature.

Yet it is the Harper government that’s making it difficult to find out about the extent of prison construction, infrastructure and administrative costs and the reasoning behind the misnamed Safe Streets and Communities omnibus bill.

Whether the Conservative law and order agenda fits the crime facts or results in wasted expenditures is not the point. It’s truly meant to be a new kind of unaccountable national economic stimuli infrastructure program that puts some to work and some to more jail time. It’s interesting to note that no one has ever gone to jail for political or bureaucratic record alteration.

As the secretive cost-cutting of some federal government programs gets underway and raises fears, it’s apparent that not all the facts are or will be put forward.

For example, the August 2011 creation of a new agency, Shared Services Canada, announced as a means to consolidate government data centres and reputedly save some of the $820-million costs spent for such centres, is off to a rocky start. An April, 2011 Price Waterhouse Cooper (PWC) study done for Public Works and Government Services and released under the Access to Information Act to The Canadian Press, suggests that there will still be millions of dollars in new expenses and that, despite denials and clearly inadequate planning for this transition, IT jobs will be lost as well and IT infrastructure will still not be reigned in.

At the Department of National Defence, the in-house cost-cutting exercise brought out an initially-leaked internal report by now retired General Andrew Leslie recommending that HQ management and consultant staff cuts be done. Media stories about resistance to these HQ cuts as well as stories on the costly flying travel spending habits of Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk and Defence Minister Peter MacKay then began to emerge. This comes along with Minister MacKay’s own vague statements about military spending priorities and less-than-reassuring statements about the costs of acquiring and maintaining a fleet of F-35 fighter planes.

The crux of what’s behind cost-cutting exercises going on elsewhere in Ottawa is not being done with transparency in mind. The costs of some federal agencies’ programs not cutting back remain far removed from public scrutiny. A 2011 PricewaterhouseCoopers data centre study, for instance, indicated that restricting government spending via data centre consolidation did not apply to the 10 per cent of the secretive IT multi-million dollar expenses being chewed up by unidentified agencies with “top secret” and “protected C special” data systems.

In addition, the real costs of the recent SNC-Lavalin buyout of Canada’s nuclear reactors in Canada and abroad are not being put forward publicly. And with privatization, even less will be known about the CANDU reactors and their effectiveness and safety.

And Canada’s Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan has in a new report released last week questioned the transparency and effectiveness of the federal government’s climate change spending and reporting. Access users are routinely denied much data on climate change.

Yet one other NGO report conducted by Transparency International in a country-by-country survey, ranks Canada’s efforts near the bottom in fuller reporting when it comes to preventing corruption for Canadian companies operating abroad in foreign extractive resource markets.

Canadian authorities only have begun such efforts by fining Niko Resources Ltd. for bribing a Bangladeshi government minister and they are reviewing SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. actions over alleged corruption activities given irregularities in a bridge project funded by the World Bank in Bangladesh. That these activities have been occurring and are now seeing the light of day, are not because of a careful and transparent Canadian government monitoring program.

How government is influenced and makes its decisions is becoming harder to discern. Take one example that raises such questions. Finance Canada access to information documents show that for four years running from 2008 to 2011, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and his wife, Christine Elliott, a provincial Conservative MPP, have met each year in private dinners with Barrick Gold Corporation’s owner Peter Munk while at the Davos, Switzerland World Economic Forum. There is no requirement to disclose and divulge the nature of their conversations or disclose if federal or provincial business was brought up.

These examples are not the actions of a government wanting greater openness about its affairs. On the other hand, Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page has publicly released much alternate data on federal spending. He has now provided a database to assist MPs and others to more regularly trace government program expenditures as one means of proactively providing fuller budget information and more accounting scrutiny.

But creative avoidance and delays, unfortunately, rather than designing more helpful and timely information disclosures still are the predominate way governments operate.

Recent revelations under investigation include a former Alberta minister Ted Morton and some British Cabinet ministers trying to delay release and hide their e mail transmissions as personal not public ones. This suggest, that the Harper government is not alone at creative avoidance practices.

Last week at the International Conference of Information Commissioners in Ottawa helped illustrate how far behind Canada has fallen in progressive access to information circles.

The Harper government should be obligated to serve up much more visible and neutral data placing us back up there internationally on disclosure practices. That would be a great legacy.