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Being open and accountable: easier in Opposition

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It's almost impossible to get elected to anything these days without promising more open and accountable government.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/10/2015 (2597 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s almost impossible to get elected to anything these days without promising more open and accountable government.

That doesn’t mean we get open and accountable government. Only that it’s so darn easy to promise and so diabolically difficult to deliver.

Such is the challenge facing prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau, who used quite a bit of rhetoric around more open, accountable and transparent government in his majority-winning election platform.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau speaks at the National Press Theatre to during a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday.

“Transparent government is key to keeping our democracy healthy,” Trudeau said repeatedly during the 78-day campaign. He used this mantra as a frame for promises on “ending the secrecy and closed doors” that were endemic in the Conservative government. He promised people would know more about what he and his government were doing and why.

It will take time before we can truly judge Trudeau’s commitment to true openness and accountability. The good news is the bar set by the previous government is ridiculously low.

The Tory government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper was elected in part on a pledge to improve openness and accountability. But once in power, it became one of the most controlling, most manipulative governments ever in terms of managing information and communications.

Bureaucrats and government-employed subject-matter experts were gagged. Official requests for government information were forced through a dozen layers of administrative hell. Access-to-information applications were delayed and stretched out indefinitely.

Trudeau doesn’t have to do much to exceed that performance. And yet, based on what he said during the campaign, Canadians should expect more. Will we get it? Hard to say at this point, but there are some worrisome signs.

For example, Trudeau has said a Liberal government will change its relationship with watchdogs such as the Parliamentary Budget Office to make them “totally independent.”

It’s not a bad pledge. It’s just that the independence of watchdogs such as the PBO is not at issue; it’s the lack of co-operation from government.

The Conservatives created the PBO in 2006 as part of its much vaunted and (now) much maligned Federal Accountability Act. The intent was to create an arm’s-length office of independent fiscal experts to review economic performance, government finances and spending decisions made by Parliament.

The only problem was the Conservatives grew to fear, and then hate, the PBO for pointing out time and time again the fiscal vagaries of the government of the day. This included a 2011 report that confirmed government plans to buy new F-35 fighter jets was $29 billion, more than three times original estimates.

In response to this and other reports, the Harper government stopped co-operating with PBO requests for financial information. That did not stop the PBO from publishing its reports, which continued to point out as often as possible just how misleading the Conservative government was being in its budget and economic claims.

As you can see, the PBO was and remains fiercely independent. What the PBO really needs now is a more co-operative government that will share information about its spending programs.

Will a Trudeau government be more co-operative? Trudeau has been an outspoken critic of the Tory government’s efforts to disrupt the PBO’s work. And he has definitely promised to do something to help the PBO. He just hasn’t specifically promised federal departments will, without exception, fulfil any request for information from the PBO.

And that’s an important observation because, as political history has shown us repeatedly, it is infinitely easier for new governments to adopt the non-transparent ways of their predecessors.

In 1999, when the Manitoba NDP government came to power, there was much talk about abandoning “cab com,” the nickname given to the system of internal cabinet communications management created by the former Progressive Conservative government.

“Cab com” was a sharp departure from the previous system of managing government communications, which wasn’t much of a system at all. Back in the day, journalists wandered the halls of the legislature, entering the offices of cabinet ministers or mandarins to have unscheduled chats with chiefs of staff or other senior aides. Or, sometimes, with the ministers themselves.

“Cab com” changed that. All requests to speak to a minister went through an office overseen by the premier’s communications chief. Reporters were no longer permitted to approach senior staff or bureaucrats directly; all requests for information were vetted and approved (or not) centrally.

In opposition, the NDP were critics of the “cab com” system. When they became government, they seamlessly adopted the same communication practices. “Cab com” remains in place today, using the same central phone number the Tories set up nearly 20 years ago.

Openness and accountability are tough to measure. Even if government releases more information, there is no guarantee it isn’t just more of the information government wants us to have. The test of openness is the release of information the government would rather keep hidden.

We’ll watch Trudeau as he tries to live up to his lofty promises. We won’t be surprised if, unfortunately, he fails on this one item. It is, after all, just part of tradition in this country.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

History

Updated on Tuesday, October 27, 2015 7:37 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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