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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to the media before Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on April 19.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

In its youth, the Trudeau government was very good at branding and grand mission statements. It was a skill that was slightly hypnotizing for its novelty at the time. If the Harper government’s instinct was to turn the hose on any kids it found playing on its lawn, then the Trudeau government promised to fling open the front door and offer a rap session over a nice cool glass of lemonade.

In an open letter to Canadians on the day his first cabinet was sworn in, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to “set a higher bar for openness and transparency” in Ottawa. “Government and its information must be open by default,” he wrote. “Simply put, it is time to shine more light on government to make sure it remains focused on the people it was created to serve – you.”

You could practically hear the “Open by default” banners fluttering nobly atop the Peace Tower.

The problem with having a flair for gleaming manifestoes is that they tend to stick in the mind. And then they follow you around like a hapless tuba soundtrack, reminding everyone of what you once proudly advertised, what you now are and the distance between the two.

At this point, the Liberals’ open-by-default declarations register as cruel farce. They didn’t start the practice of iron-fisted information control in government, but they sure haven’t ended it. And they’re the ones who made that a central feature of who they would be.

There are big-picture obfuscations that deserve correspondingly large derision, like refusing to say how much public money they spent wooing Volkswagen to make car batteries in Canada (a lot, as it turns out) or the government’s obstinance on Beijing poking its fingers into Canadian life.

But it’s the smaller, daily roadblocks that are perhaps more insulting and corrosive, because they seem so unnecessary and because they send the constant message that public information is meted out on a need-to-know basis, and the public needs to know a lot less than it thinks it does.

If journalists, being annoying and nosy on behalf of citizens, have a question for a federal government department, talking to a live human being who knows things about the thing you want to know is an adorable fantasy most of the time. This will usually be conveyed by the delicate euphemism that an interview request “cannot be accommodated.” This sounds like parenting books that advise you to tell a recalcitrant toddler “It’s time to get ready for bed now” because it’s harder to argue with something decreed by the universe than with a person who tells you they’ve made a decision.

Once the absurd idea of an interview is waved off, you are asked to submit questions for response by e-mail, and to state your deadline. This is where the whole thing devolves into play acting.

If you get responses by deadline, they will generally be “answers” to what you asked only in the geographical sense that they will be located below each of your questions. They will otherwise bear, at best, a one-night-stand relationship to the original queries or to anything resembling a clear thought or fact. They will be so obviously, transparently workshopped to death by an unseen army of staffers and bureaucrats that you will practically be able to see the sweaty, nervous fingerprints still steaming on them.

But sometimes – seemingly increasingly – you will not get even an overcooked pablum of words by the stated deadline. At least one federal department now responds to deadline requests by asserting that it has “a two-day service standard,” which is as good as refusing to answer. Others have taken to blowing through a deadline, then asking that a story that has already been published be “updated” or reprinted to include their day-late-and-a-dollar-short response. (No, but that is an impressive level of chutzpah you have there.)

It’s important to note that not every department or minister’s office does this. It’s also important to acknowledge that in terms of populations whining about their working conditions, journalists rank somewhere between scary birthday clowns and subway rats on most people’s scale of who’s worth tuning up the tiny violin for.

But the real problem that underlies all of this is the concept of who owns the information. It’s not the government’s to hoard, or for bureaucratic bouncers to jealously guard. It doesn’t even belong to the journalists asking a bunch of rude questions. The information is owned by the Canadian public, and owed to them as the ones who foot the bill and who will conduct the job interview next time there’s an election call.

That’s the principled argument, but if that’s too sanctimonious for you, there’s a much more mercenary one to be made for the government explaining itself on the regular: it’s self-defeatingly dumb not to.

The logic of withholding public information might be risk aversion or issues management or the peevish certainty that everything is torqued to death and no one gives a fair benefit of the doubt. None of those problems is improved by a refusal to explain yourself, and pretty much all of them are exacerbated by refusing to do so.

When you write an exam, sometimes you arrive at the wrong answer to the big question at the end of the paper. But everyone knows you only get partial credit for trying if you show your work.

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