Secrecy grows in House

The gap between the government and the governed continues to grow in Canada.

The gap between the government and the governed continues to grow in Canada.

Democracy depends on having an informed electorate, one that is capable of choosing between alternatives on issues. But our federal government is raising the withholding of information to an art form.

When cabinet stonewalls Parliament, refusing to say when it was informed that prisoners detained in Afghanistan were being turned over for torture, or what was said when Rahim Jaffer came visiting, or won’t allow an audit to show if MPs know the rules governing what they can legally expense as part of their jobs, the opposition just raises the volume — and makes the arguments personal.

Very quickly, neither side is interested in democracy or an informed electorate. It becomes all about winning — a power game.

It’s to the point now that parliamentary committees are no longer being allowed to question political support staff on how they carry out their duties.

That makes it much simpler for cabinet ministers to control the flow of information. If staff are not required to answer questions about why they did this or that, it becomes much more difficult to catch their bosses in a lie.

Parliamentary committees in Ottawa are different than their counterparts in Alberta. In Ottawa, these committees work for Parliament, not government, and all parties are represented. In Alberta, almost all committees are simply composed entirely of government party backbenchers.

Since we have a minority federal government, the opposition collectively controls these committees. Thus the strife.

Government house leader Jay Hill says the government is fed up with these committees summoning political staff, many of whom are young and new to their careers, to be badgered, humiliated and intimidated by committee questioners.

Therefore, he said, since ministers are ultimately responsible for the work of political staff, only they will show up to answer questions from now on — and some ministers have shown they will only show up if they want to.

Liberal MP Wayne Easter would have none of that. Some political staff make more press announcements than their ministers and regularly handle questions live for national news networks. They can make up to $160,000 a year. These are hardly lambs being led to slaughter.

The truth is somewhere in the middle, of course. But when the battling sides are so entrenched, who cares about the truth?

Donald Savoie holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the University of Moncton. Talk about a job with a big name.

He says both sides have their points, but the deciding factor is what the Canadian people will accept from their elected representatives.

On that front, he believes Canadians aren’t in the mood to be told by government what it is that they have no right to know.

Government can make its case that political staff shouldn’t have to tell parliamentary committees what it is they wrote, said or did, says Savoie. But Canadians have reached the point where they want to know anyway. And if that means someone bleeds in public, so be it.

In an online age, where all things can be made available at a click, you just don’t tell us we have no right to know anymore.

It’s our money, our government, our country.

Savoie recently wrote a book titled Power: Where is it? With regard to the flow of information, the question answers itself.

The Harper government is obsessed with secrecy, of knowing more than we do. Pundits say that satisfies the prime minister’s quest for power.

When the gap between Harper’s need for secrecy and Canadians’ desire to know grows too large, it may soon be settled which side has the last word.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.