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Lawrence Martin
Lawrence Martin

Lawrence Martin

In Ottawa, secrecy is the issue that keeps on giving Add to ...

NDP Leader Jack Layton rose in the Commons, the storm known as Hurricane Helena on his mind. "Now, here is the so-called tough-on-crime Prime Minister," he bellowed, "who will not even tell Canadians why he has called the cops on one of his own!"

The line by Mr. Layton, who displays more consistency and integrity than the other party leaders, was one of the better ones in a week that, on the subject of secrecy and censorship, has featured many. Secrecy has become a culture in Ottawa. It is the issue that keeps on growing - and for the opposition, keeps on giving.

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The Helena Guergis controversy could very well turn out to be a tempest in a teapot. But by not revealing the reason for calling in the police to look into her activities, the government makes it bigger than it need be. It opens up another line of attack: stonewalling. Here we go again - more bricklayers in the Harper government than any other in the G20, it is said.

Also this week, there's been the information commissioner's report condemning the government on access-to-information issues. There's been a rare appearance by Guy Giorno, Stephen Harper's chief of staff, at a committee hearing on the subject. And there's been an appearance by Richard Colvin, the diplomat who set the Afghan detainees file aflame.

As to the governing mentality, Mr. Colvin's latest show featured a wonderfully telling moment. In testimony before a commission, he made the point that if unredacted documents were released, they would reveal some crucial information. Justice Department lawyer Alain Préfontaine responded that he had seen the uncensored documents and didn't find anything that was crucial or important.

This prompted Glenn Stannard, the commission chairman, to ask whether he was hearing Mr. Préfontaine correctly.

Indeed you are, the lawyer responded.

Well then, the chairman asked, why aren't the documents released?

"Because" Mr. Préfontaine said, "disclosure would be injurious to either national defence, international relations or national security."

It is to be hoped that he realized he was hoisting himself with his own petard.

In the report by interim information commissioner Suzanne Legault, it was instructive to see which departments received the most abysmal grades. The Foreign Affairs department didn't even qualify for an F. Such has been this department's record on candour that Ms. Legault had to create a special off-the-charts "red alert" category for it. Foreign Affairs, of course, has been the department at the centre of the Afghan detainees storm for three years running.

Another department of considerable interest is the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic arm of the Prime Minister's Office. It is the department that should be setting the example for all the others. It received a D.

It should be noted that previous Liberal governments received dismal grades as well. But under this government, Ms. Legault warned, the right of Canadians to obtain federal documents is at risk of being "totally obliterated."

So the stage was set for the Prime Minister's top man, Mr. Giorno, to take the stage. Ethics committee members had enough ammunition to eat this guy alive, to obliterate him, perhaps even totally.

Alas, the golden opportunity was fumbled. Committee members didn't even ask Mr. Giorno to respond directly to the charges in the Legault report. Many of them gave long soap-box preambles that uselessly used up their questioning time.

When they asked about reports that the PMO has been instructing bureaucrats to block the release of sensitive information, Mr. Giorno sidestepped. He said repeatedly that he doesn't respond to stories quoting anonymous sources. His PMO officials insist on being quoted anonymously almost every day of the week, but no one challenged him about that.

He was smooth, unruffled, unrevealing and after two hours of testimony, he walked away undiminished. There was no admission of faults in the system. Judging by his testimony, it needs only a bit of fine tuning.

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