A blog to give a voice to our concern about the continued erosion of our democratic processes not only within the House of Commons and within our electoral system but also throughout our society. Here you will find articles about the current problems within our parliamentary democracy, about actions both good and bad by our elected representatives, about possible solutions, opinions and debate about the state of democracy in Canada, and about our roles/responsibilities as democratic citizens. We invite your thoughtful and polite comments upon our posts and ask those who wish to post longer articles or share ideas on this subject to submit them for inclusion as a guest post.
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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Access to Information

I have previously posted an article by Mark, here once again he has hit upon an important part of our democratic process and so I am pleased to repeat his post in its entirety below…..

Access to Information is our right. So why is so much shrounded in secrecy and inaccessible?

Sshhh. It’s secret.

But maybe, just maybe, it shouldn’t be.

Having been a observer of international and Canadian politics, working for the Green Party of Canada on it’s highest-level strategic arm, campaigning in elections, and as a student and writer, the most important tool in my life has been information. While you may come from a different background, you will likely be able say information has played a significant role in your life. Indeed, many say we live in the Age of Information.

So why, when it is so critical to our professional lives and public lives, is it that so much information is kept from us? How is it that a society that prides itself on transparency and democracy has based some of its most important decisions on secrecy? Worse yet, how is it possible that individuals and organizations – from political leaders, to the parties they lead, to the government institutions that spend our tax money - champion transparency and democracy then act with such smug levels of hypocrisy when they don’t apply those same standards to themselves?

We face a massive problem with both secrecy and access to information. These may not be catchy topics, certainly not one that alone will get front pages of our media (which is sort of part of the problem), but I now believe it is one of the most fundamental challenges we face.
So now here’s the beef. In 1983, Canada enshrined the Access to Information Act. We were a moral beacon sitting on a high moral perch just where we like to be, believing that if a citizen wanted information on an issue in Canada, they had to right to receive it.

Yet twenty years later, the results aren’t as rosy as we might like to suspect. Earlier this year Information Commissioner Robert Marleau released a report on the access to information act, noting that “twenty-five years along we are no longer as relevant. It’s not entirely by design, it’s more by neglect.” One problem is that unless you are a Canadian citizen there are various additional requirements (read barriers) you must meet before making an application for access to information. Yet at the same time, Canada has signed international statutes and protocols guaranteeing all people rights and freedoms, not only citizens. As Marleau noted “The freedom to seek information of all kinds, regardless of frontier, should be available to all citizens of the planet.”The process by which people can receive information is also costly, bureaucratic and drawn out, or even worse, can lead to systematic denial. Take the recent example of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Relations. In February, David Akin reported that despite lawyers confirming that the department was in violation the Access to Information Act by applying special “preparation fees”, it has prevented the release of upwards of 160,000 pages of documents on “everything from the mission in Afghanistan to the NATO briefing materials Maxime Bernier left at his girlfriend’s, to new free trade deals.” And that’s just one department.

There’s more too. In NAFTA, despite the fact that the direct interests of citizens are at stake its tribunals deliberate privately, behind closed doors, with no public participation, and sometimes without public knowledge of the proceedings. The reason I was inspired to write this blog actually came from a conversation in which someone informed me that the ongoing negotiations between the government and the companies involved in the Sponsorship Scandal are all happening behind closed doors, despite this being all about the money and interests of Canadians.

So who is to defend our right to information and guarantee that information we ought to have the right to have is accessible, available and not shrouded in secrecy?

While they’d love to be the ones to champion it, it is not be political parties. I mean any of them, except maybe the Libertarians, but that’s just not going to happen. Why? Because the same shroud of secrecy and lack of transparency is only exacerbated on the partisan scale. Whether it is a means to survive in the brutal battlefield of partisan politics or it’s just a tradition of top-down control and ensuring subordination, from all of my experience and from reading the Canadian Democratic Audit series, Canadian political parties are far from being democratic themselves.

The selection of Ignatieff as Liberal Leader and Party Conventions in general are poor examples of democracy in action.
Consider the example of how Michael Ignatieff became leader of the Liberal Party – without so much as breaking a sweat trying to convince party members he was the one to lead. Or how about policy conventions of political parties which are so tightly controlled by the leadership as to appear fraudulent. It’s that, or the policies approved by members become “suggestions” or “proposals”. If you’ve worked with or in a political party, just think about a time when you asked “why is this they way it is” or “I’m not sure this is right” or “how is this the way it is”. It’s why whistle blowers are so few and far between.

Lack of transparency is also part of the rules of engagement in party politics. When someone wants to become a candidate for a political party and is selected to represent that party in a riding, they can be systematically denied. The reason is that the leader of the party must sign their nomination form – a rule stipulated by Elections Canada in order for the candidate to run. This frustrates candidates to no end and rightly so. For example, if the leader alone wants only a woman to represent a certain riding, there is no recourse, despite the fact that the individual was selected by his riding’s membership democratically. Want to know why you were rejected? Sorry, that’s confidential.

There is less real democracy in our system that we may believe and there hardly can be more when we are denied so much of information that would help us making informed decisions.

Parties, which are supposed to be the centrepiece of our democratic system, are rarely held to account for their own lack of transparency
Parties, which are supposed to be the centrepiece of our democratic system, are rarely held to account for their own lack of transparency and refusal to apply to themselves the standards they demand of everyone else. It’s something I will be writing about in greater detail because I think it is a fundamental flaw with our party system and a structural weakness in our democracy that isn’t scrutinized nearly enough.

So who are the leaders of information? Out of necessity, it’s you and me. Only we can come together to demand transparency and access. It’s a large part of why I write this blog and bring forth ideas, and why a common vein in what I publish is what I believe is underreported. It’s hopefully a large part of why you read this blog too.
For ourselves we must thus reject the apathy that the keepers of information expect of us. It’s not easy, and it may not be catchy, but it is our right and it is our responsibility.

Mark Kersten has a passion for Canadian politics and is interested in Canada’s place in the world and it’s foreign policy, constitutional law, and intergovernmental affairs. He is a former Compliance and Information Coordinator for the GPC where his job allowed him to see and play in the world of political strategy, messaging and campaigning.
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