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  • Politicians, the media and gag orders

    03/26/2014 11:26 AM

    This week, we got updates on two important bids by the federal government to muzzle its employees.

    In the first instance, plans to subject MPs' staff to an indefinite gag order have apparently been ditched. Last March, MPs' staffers were told they would be subject to a lifetime ban on discussing any of the details of their time working in Ottawa.

    The gag order was only one of several new guidelines for staffers, which included new rules on conflict of interest and disclosing gifts and payments by third party.

    The new policy was drafted by the Board of Internal Economy, the Orwellian-named committee that oversees the administration of the House of Commons. Like all parliamentary committees, it's dominated by members of the governing Conservatives. However, it's important to note that all members of the committee, which included two New Democrats and a Liberal, apparently approved the new rules.

    The lifetime gag has now been reduced to a five-year prohibition on the discussion of any intimate details of the inner workings of any MP's office. (Interestingly, the scandal-plagued Senate is not affected by this policy.)

    However, that is not the only effort being made to muzzle government employees. This month, we also learned that employees in 12 government divisions are now subject to lifetime gag orders under the Security of Information Act. These include the justice department and Privy Council Office.

    This time, Ottawa claims the lifetime bans are needed to safeguard "special operational information," an awkward term that is supposed to describe anything important to national security.

    Although some citizens may find comfort in a government that is trying to curb information leaks, there is grave concern that this is less about sensitive national security information, and more about limiting what we know or hope to learn about our government.

    On many levels, the gag orders are hardly necessary. The aforementioned Security of Information Act outlines both the kinds of information that must be kept secret and the penalties for violating the law, which include very lengthy prison terms. In the last two years alone, several people have been prosecuted under this law and punished severely.

    National security laws, in general, focus on the types of information that should be kept confidential; gag orders are bids to intimidate large groups of people from discussing any information publicly. Even if that information is not sensitive or confidential in any legal definition.

    The joke here is that gag orders are practically ineffective and legally tenuous.

    In these days of blind Twitter and email accounts, it's still possible for someone to leak sensitive information to the media. (It's instructive that an image of the original gag order drafted last March was sent to the CBC using an anonymous email account.)

    There are also legal limits to gag orders. You cannot, for example, contractually prevent someone from revealing evidence of a criminal act. A gag order could never be used to refuse to comply with a subpoena or other court order to release information.

    Lastly, gag orders seem to run pretty much against the grain of any kind of whistleblower legislation. Perhaps the rise in the gag-order activity in Ottawa explains why our whistleblower laws suck.

    Gag orders are clumsy, intellectually weak efforts to hide the inner workings of government. When any government spends so much of its time devising and implementing new gag orders, doesn't it make you wonder what everyone is trying to hide?

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  • Not even Twitter can save us now

    07/8/2013 9:54 AM

    It was a number that leaped off the page at me.

    According to national survey conducted by Samara, a non-profit group that promotes civic engagement in Canada, only 10 per cent of respondents had volunteered for, donated to, or joined a political party in the previous five years. Only 17 per cent had taken part in a political discussion on social media, or written a letter to the editor on politics or a political issue in the last year.

    Reading this reminded me that I recently also read that only 20 per cent of Canadians still smoke.

    Imagine that. More people smoke than use the brave new tools of social connectivity to discuss political issues. All this at a time when smoking is considered unfashionable, and the internet makes it so much easier for us to engage, debate, organize and mobilize.

    Smoking and politics: bad habits that Canadians are slowly convincing themselves to give up altogether.

    The survey results are a source of profound concern for Samara. "At a time when technology could make some forms of engagement easier than ever, Canadians are stepping away from formal politics," it states. "Politics will only improve when citizens demand change, and when working within politics is better understood and viewed as a critical part of citizenship."

    Social media has been a tool of devastating engagement and mobilization in Asia. It was a key element in the Arab Spring movement. It is the megaphone for a new generation. It's a ubiquitous presence in political movements that defy the status quo and work to defeat the forces of suppression and oppression.

    Contrast that trend with North America, where social media is the tool we use to efficiently share pictures of what we ordered for dinner the night before.

    For those who have abandoned all interest in politics and government, let’s look at what is created in the absence of citizen engagement.

    The first area of concern is the state of political discourse. The reality now is that those few still involved in politics to have among the worst attitudes towards government and public policy. Far too many of the still-politically active Canadians are unbridled partisans who are more interested in laying waste to opponents than engaging in any kind of debate.

    Rampant partisanism, which manifests in pointless and uncivil debate, does not produce better policy or programs. It stifles innovation and gridlocks government from doing anything truly bold and beneficial for society. As a result, we get government that worries more about winning elections than good government. And opposition politics that is more about disagreeing with the government than making better policy or programs.

    The other troubling trend is that lower interest in politics and lower voter turnout means that an increasingly smaller constituency gets to make all of the important decisions in the country.

    As it stands right now, only about one-quarter of all registered adult voters pick the party that gets to lead the country, or the province.

    In the 2011 Manitoba general election, 199,069 Manitobans helped elect a NDP majority government. That’s 25.62 per cent of the total registered voters in that election. Federally, the Conservatives received 5.83 million votes, or about 24.33 per cent of all registered voters.

    We should all study the identities of those still involved in politics. Then, we should ask ourselves whether these folks really represent us, or represent only their own and other special interests? And, perhaps more importantly, what we're going to do when a handful of citizens control government, and all our lives, and we stood by and watched it all happen.

    There is something we can all do to help turn this trend around. Tweet a link to the Samara report to your followers. Post it on your Facebook page. Start a new trend where expressing concern about the pathetic state of citizen engagement is the main reason why you use social media.

    You can post it right beside the picture of the ceviche you enjoyed last night.

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  • Bomber transit adventure: no one got left behind

    06/28/2013 11:00 AM

    For those of you following my Bomber game-day transit deliberations - all two of you - here is the final report.

    Went at 5:30 sharp to the Osborne Street rapid transit station to take the 161 Super Express to stadium. The 161 did not materialize, for reasons not entirely understood by the two dozen Bomber fans waiting with us at the platform. At least one 161 did appear northbound from the U of M campus, leading some to speculate the root STARTED at the U of M. If that's so, that's dumb given the need to move people south.

    Waited 25 mins and finally caught a 162 to the stadium. There were a ton of buses moving southbound on Pembina Highway. So many that we were able to leap frog several and didn't have to make every stop. It was a semi-express and got us into the stadium in 25 minutes.

    Total time needed to get to the game - 50 mins. Not bad.

    Left the game the moment the Bombers turned the ball over on downs in the last gasp of the fourth quarter. Our seats were in the south end of the stadium - right where all the buses were parked for the return trip north. On the way home, hopped on a 160 and was back to Osborne Station in just 21 minutes. Very impressive given that the buses met Pembina Highway at Chancellor Blvd. and had to travel all the way back up past University Crescent. 

    Transit works fine now that they have more buses and dedicated lanes near the campus. However, we did leave two hours before opening ceremonies. If we wanted to arrive closer to game time, I'm not sure how the experience would have unfolded. 

    The bottom line: transit worked pretty darn good last night. But not even a flood of additional buses and cops to direct traffic could help the team on the field. 

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  • The great game-day deliberation continues

    06/26/2013 11:10 AM

    I can't be absolutely sure because I was only able to check every five minutes all afternoon, but I'm going to suggest that Winnipeg Transit finally posted updated transit information for Bomber game days at 4:40 p.m. Tuesday. I'll let you decide whether, based on previous commentary, that was "urgent" enough.

    The information posted on its site is helpful, although I did find it a bit incomplete. And the presentation is very cumbersome.

    For example, it did not contain information about the temporary diamond lanes (open buses and bicycles only) that will be established to help get buses into and out of the campus on game days. That information was contained in a great story by WFP reporter extraordinaire Bartley Kives. The diamond lanes will be in effect on Bishop Grandin and University Crescent. Why is that information important? Consider my dilemma.

    Poll

    How many games will the Bombers win this season?

    View Results

    My family has a number of transit options. We could jump on a 161-Investors Group Field express bus on the transitway near Confusion Corner that goes from Jubilee (end of transitway) to the U of M campus without making a stop. Winnipeg Transit will start running those buses every 15 minutes starting at 5:30 p.m. However, there are no diamond lanes on Pembina Highway, so it's quite likely this "express" route will be anything but.

    A better option may be to take the Route 3 Super Express Bus from the St. Vital Arena (on St. Anne's Road just south of Bishop Grandin). This is appealing because there are supposed to be temporary diamond lanes on Bishop Grandin that should help funnel the express buses onto Pembina Highway and then University Crescent.

    The small point here is that more complete information would help people figure out the best route to take.

    The Investors Group Field website, which is really just an extension of the Bomber site, still contains no information about transit routes in and out of the campus. On the home page, there is a box to click for transit information. However, all that is contained there is a map showing parking options on campus. There appears to be a spot where transit information is supposed to go, but there is currently nothing there -- not even a link back to the Winnipeg Transit site. 

    I'm also a bit confused by the fact that all the express transit service begins at 5:30 p.m. Depending on which of the 10 express park and ride options you choose, it is easy to see how it would be 30 minutes or more before the buses would arrive at the Fort Garry campus. That puts the express buses right in the teeth of the busiest traffic on game day. Would it be beneficial to start some of the express routes at 5 p.m. for the real keeners? If you are riding express routes from Kildonan Place, McPhillips Street Station or Assiniboia Downs, a 5 p.m. departure might make sense.

    Lastly, as a suggestion, wouldn't it make sense to create a space on the IGF site that allows bars and restaurants to advertise if they offer game-day parking and shuttle services to the game? Right now, it's hard to find that information.

    A final decision on transit options has yet to be made at my house. I'm sure, like me, you can hardly wait to hear what route we choose. 

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About Dan Lett

Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school.

Despite the fact that he’s originally from Toronto and has a fatal attraction to the Maple Leafs, Winnipeggers let him stay.

In the following years, he has worked at bureaus covering every level of government – from city hall to the national bureau in Ottawa.

He has had bricks thrown at him in riots following the 1995 Quebec referendum, wrote stories that helped in part to free three wrongly convicted men, met Fidel Castro, interviewed three Philippine presidents, crossed several borders in Africa illegally, chased Somali pirates in a Canadian warship and had several guns pointed at him.

In other words, he’s had every experience a journalist could even hope for. He has also been fortunate enough to be a two-time nominee for a National Newspaper Award, winning in 2003 for investigations.

Other awards include the B’Nai Brith National Human Rights Media Award and nominee for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism.

Now firmly rooted in Winnipeg, Dan visits Toronto often but no longer pines to live there.

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