This isn’t relevant to this week’s post, but for those of you curious about the outcome of the Ontario election I talked about last week, the Liberals got the slimmest of minorities (1 seat from a majority), so (thankfully!) Hudak is not in power, and Horwath and the NDP hold the balance of power. How this’ll play out will depend on who’s elected as Speaker, which will be interesting.
Let’s go back to federal politics this week and talk about Harper’s increasingly secretive style of governance. This past week, the Public Accounts committee (which is dominated by Conservative MPs) voted to shelve all outstanding Auditor General reports and hold all the Public Accounts committee meetings in camera.
This is highly unusual, and the NDP committee member who tabled the motion to continue unfinished reviewing the reports from the spring session is frustrated that the motion didn’t pass and is concerned about the lack of accountability that the committee is setting up. To be clear, the auditor general reports are public – it’s just the committee debate and and decision relating to the reports that are now secret. Some of the shelved reports are the report on the “Integrity” Commissioner (scare quotes since she acted with a total lack of integrity), the fighter jet contract (what a mess that is), and the renovations of West Block. These are all controversial reports with considerable sums of money involved and a lot of outstanding questions about the ethics of how the money is being spent, and whether the money even needs to be spent. The Public Accounts committee is extremely important in examining and investigating where public money goes – they are the people who (under a previous incarnation, of course) investigated the sponsorship scandal a few years back, for example. I don’t think I need to underline how troublesome a committee that handles public money meeting almost exclusively in secret is – and they’ve met in camera three out of four times this session.
I wish I were surprised about this, but it’s just another indicator of how inaccessible and unaccountable the Harper Conservatives are making government. Their actions continually imply, to paraphrase my aunt, that “government is great except for all the pesky citizens.” The Federal Accountability act, which they brought in during their first (minority) government, isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on – the government is in many ways less accountable now than it was when the bill was introduced, and there’s still dozens of loopholes for it to exploit.
This is pretty much how I expected this government to work: consistently blocking information behind closed doors, throwing up roadblocks to anyone who goes digging for information or trying to prevent information from being shoved behind closed doors, and making a mockery of their insistence that they are committed to accountability and transparency. I was a bit surprised as how quickly this has kicked in – I expected the government to at least make more of an effort with window dressing for the fall session when more Canadians are still paying attention to them. I thought that the more brazen opacity would come next year, after Canadians have gotten accustomed to the new government and aren’t paying as much attention as a nation. But then I realized that most Canadians probably aren’t paying attention to things like the Public Accounts committee – and it’s harder for a lack of transparency to become apparent if there’s no accountability in the first place. If it’s there initially, and then disappears, Canadians may notice it, but if it wasn’t there to begin with, then we don’t see that it’s missing (or see when it deepens and evolves). If potentially controversial reports aren’t discussed and reported upon, then they drop from the public’s view more or less immediately. And if there’s no reporting on any reports (regardless of the existence of the reports), then there’s nothing amiss, right?
Riiiiight. All’s well and good in the Canadian government, nothing to see here.