Good intentions won’t be enough to lift the curtain of secrecy over Canada’s federal government. It will require a full-blown “cultural change,” according to internal documents advising Treasury Board President Scott Brison on how to carry out Liberal promises of more openness. And a cultural shift won’t be easy to engineer, especially in a bureaucracy with about 257,000 federal employees.
That said, bring it on. During the last election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered voters a bold plan to reverse the obsession with secrecy and spin that had been the hallmark of the previous Conservative government. Promising “real change,” he pledged far more openness and accountability, starting with an end to the muzzling of federal scientists, and including an ambitious broadening of Access to Information rules.
For the sake of his own credibility, Trudeau must make substantial and visible steps toward delivering on this commitment. It’s also in the best interests of Canadian democracy.
The public deserves to know what its elected representatives are doing; what information lies at the root of government decisions; and how influence is exerted in the corridors of power. That requires broad access to documents and records, including those that happen to embarrass the party in power.
Sadly, all levels of government — not just Ottawa — are prone to concealment. Bureaucrats and politicians are inherently reluctant to welcome someone looking over their shoulder, especially if it may result in bad publicity. But pervasive secrecy, partisan stonewalling, unnecessary redactions, and blanket refusals to disclose reached entirely new heights (or depths) under former prime minister Stephen Harper.
Following Harper’s decade of rampant obfuscation, the federal bureaucracy has developed a culture of “limited disclosure” and “insular policy making,” according to documents prepared for Brison and obtained by the Star using the access to information system.
Ironically, as reported by the Star’s Alex Boutilier, those same documents were censored — the released material was stripped of recommendations indicating how the Treasury Board could actually strengthen disclosure.
There is no shortage of ways forward. For example, federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault has put forward several practical ways to fix the access to information system, including limiting the secrecy granted to cabinet documents, tighter deadlines for release of records, new sanctions for failure to disclose, and an overall presumption that information should be publicly available unless there are compelling reasons to keep it secret.
This would be a good start. As for bringing about a broad “cultural change” tilting the bureaucracy toward openness, the Liberal government’s best strategy might simply be to set a virtuous example when it comes to sharing information, including findings that don’t cast it in a particularly good light.
That is the test by which Trudeau’s promises of openness should be judged. After all, voters have heard similar pledges before. Harper, of all people, came to office in 2006 vowing to run a government that was more open, accountable and transparent than any in the past. That would have marked a culture shift.
Canadians are still waiting to see it happen.