Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/6/2020 (487 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
There are many reasons for many people around the world to fear for the future of democracy. One need only look at recent developments in Poland, Hungary and, yes, even the United States, to worry about how authoritarian impulses are trumping what happens at the ballot box and removing the guardrails of checks and balances that have served western democracies so well.
But what we also need to see is that the road to undermining democratic principles often includes the slow, painful death of access to government information. Manitoba is an excellent case in point.
This past week in Winnipeg, we learned from the Manitoba Ombudsman that the current Progressive Conservative government has been guilty of significant delays in processing freedom of information (FIPPA) requests.
The Ombudsman found "recurring patterns of delay" in FIPPA requests, which affected the rights of applicants to timely access public information. Specifically, more than three quarters of all applications under FIPPA failed to meet legislated deadlines for responses.
When asked about his government’s woeful performance on FIPPA requests, Premier Brian Pallister cried what can only be described as crocodile tears, suggesting that the Ombudsman’s report was "not something I’m happy to see."
However, he also didn’t take responsibility for the problem. First, the premier tried to blame it on the pandemic, despite the fact the report examined requests made between December 2017 and May 2018, well before COVID-19 arrived on the scene.
Then, Mr. Pallister tried to blame the former NDP government for having a worse record. Rationalizing a genuine shortcoming by blaming others for being worse is an abdication of political accountability. It also ignores the fact that the FIPPA issue is consistent with the Pallister government’s approach to communications and managing public information.
Public health officials have been available on a regular basis, but the access journalists have had to their briefings has been severely constrained. And physicians, nurses and other health care professionals say the government prevents them from talking to the media about their experiences on the front lines of the pandemic.
This is also a hardly surprising situation; the premier has regularly restricted media access to cabinet ministers, who refuse to talk directly with journalists and communicate their responses to news media questions via email statement that, often, they clearly had no hand in composing.
And, despite the fact that he has re-opened much of the provincial economy, Mr. Pallister continues to restrict journalists at media availabilities.
During the height of pandemic concern, Mr. Pallister barred journalists from the room in the legislature where he appeared and restricted the number of questions he faced.
Now that restrictions have been eased, and a limited number of journalists will be allowed to share the same space, his administration is still trying to dictate the order and number of questions that can be asked.
For a government that does not display a strong dedication to transparency, the pandemic was a convenient excuse to restrict the work of journalists and insulate the premier from a full probe into his statements, policies and programs.
Mr. Pallister seems reluctant to relinquish the additional measure of control over journalists he obtained during the pandemic.
The Pallister government has demonstrated a pattern of limiting access to public officials and information.
Democracy in Manitoba will suffer until this or another government starts respecting the public’s right to access government information on a genuine and timely basis.