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(JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

GARY MASON

Canada’s ‘oral government’ scourge Add to ...

If you’re running for office in Canada, one of the first things you must promise voters is an open and transparent government.

For years now, political leaders have been campaigning on the vow that, if elected, their government will be the most translucent in the country. It’s a pledge Christy Clark made when she successfully ran for the leadership of her B.C. Liberal Party in 2011, and later repeated to the public after she was sworn in as premier.

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This week, we got an idea of how Ms. Clark is doing on that front, thanks to a report from the province’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham. She found that secrecy in the Premier’s office has spiked dramatically during Ms. Clark’s tenure.

Specifically, the commissioner found that an increasing percentage of freedom-of-information requests made to Ms. Clark’s office return with the stamp “No records available.” In 2009-10, the percentage of FOI applications to the Premier’s office that met this fate was 21 per cent. Under Ms. Clark, it has soared to 45 per cent.

Ms. Denham launched a specific investigation into why FOI requests related to the 2012 departure of the Premier’s chief of staff, Ken Boessenkool, under peculiar circumstances came up empty-handed. Mr. Boessenkool resigned after an unexplained but apparently troubling encounter with a female government staffer in a Victoria bar.

In carrying out their probe, Ms. Denham’s investigators interviewed the Premier’s then-deputy chief of staff, Kim Haakstad. Ms. Haakstad recently resigned for her part in overseeing the development of a callous and manipulative ethnic outreach strategy that was leaked to the New Democrats, causing a furor and a temporary crisis in Ms. Clark’s government. The 17-page memo was passed around on private e-mail accounts so as to avoid public scrutiny.

Ms. Haakstad told the privacy commissioner’s staff that little is committed to paper in the Premier’s office – most communication is done verbally. She then described a long list of items that Ms. Clark’s office considers “transitory” in nature – that is, of temporary usefulness – and so are not kept for possible FOI inspection. The list included, among other things, draft documents, meeting requests, phone messages and incoming letters to the Premier.

After the uproar caused by the ethnic outreach stratagem, itself a draft document, I can see why the Premier might not want these records to see the light of day.

It’s easy to be outraged by it all, but Ms. Clark’s office is hardly alone. Much of the most important and sensitive business of government in Canada is done off the grid, especially as you get closer to the epicentre of power. The Prime Minister and premiers don’t want you to know what really happens behind the curtains in their offices, how decisions are made. Often, it’s not a pretty picture – and if it were all written down, much of it would prompt uncomfortable questions that a government would rather not answer.

So, instead, the real juicy stuff is communicated through private e-mail accounts. This is why many provincial and federal officials are seen carrying two BlackBerrys: one for their government e-mails and one for their private correspondence, which is often about government matters. Or, as is increasingly the case, important matters are simply communicated verbally.

Ms. Denham says there’s a disturbing trend toward what she calls “oral government,” where the business of government is conducted by word of mouth and free of records. She believes there should be “duty to document” legislation that would force politicians to have producible records related to all key actions, deliberations and decisions.

Ms. Clark, not surprisingly, says she’ll have to think about it. She adds, rightly, that there isn’t a government in the country that has “duty to document” laws. This, despite endless pleas over the years from information commissioners demanding just this type of legislation. So far, no one’s biting, and it will be a brave government that takes the first step into this unchartered terrain.

Fact is, governments are, in many ways, less open than they’ve ever been. Because of technological advances, it’s easier than ever to avoid public examination.

“We are seeing an increase in this troubling culture of oral government, and it’s not good,” says Ms. Denham. “I think we need to change that in order to gain public trust.”

So true. Meantime, it’s far easier to say you’re going to be open and transparent than to actually do it.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

 

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