Open By default. With those three words, the new Prime Minister changed the culture of Ottawa, perhaps more than it has been changed in a generation.
Everyone knows – or should know – the secrecy that has cloaked the operations of the federal government during the last decade. Scientists were prohibited from talking about their work – at least without Ministerial approval. Freedom to information rules were tightened and made inaccessible to ordinary citizens because of the high fees attached to them. The long-form census was scrapped to protect privacy while the government increased the power of the state to pry into our affairs. The media were controlled or when they wouldn’t be compliant, they were shut out. Conservative party officials explained it was because their in-house propaganda was truer than what you found in the press.
But what a lot of people may not know, or have forgotten, is the extent to which the Canadian government has always clung to secrecy and the control of information – information that was gathered and compiled and analyzed on our dime.
Even in the previous Liberal administration, the general rule was secret by default. Some things have to be secret or at least confidential – Cabinet debates for example, are kept private to ensure Ministers will speak their mind even when some of the things they have to say are politically unpalatable, but at one time there were serious efforts to keep Cabinet decisions from being widely disseminated. That, in a democracy, makes no sense. Personal and proprietary information should be protected, of course. But, even then, there are limits.
While the United States and England and most of Europe were embracing the idea of transparency and accountability and making use of new technologies to share information with their citizens, Canada continued to hide behind the need for confidentiality. Remember, Stephen Harper made accountability (and greater openness) one of his five priorities in his first election. If it hadn’t been a problem, he might not have done that.
Of course, he wasn’t serious. He didn’t want open government; he wanted a government better able to explain to the people why its decisions were necessary. But that’s another story.
The Harper desire for control played very nicely with the instincts of certain bureaucrats. They knew that knowledge was power and, indeed, many had built their careers on what they knew and others didn’t. All bureaucrats are, by nature, cautious (not necessarily a bad thing) but some took that caution too far and became willing partners in the growing central control of information – until it got to the point that the bureaucracy was silenced, dis-empowered and kept from working. Then they began to complain. And when their complaints were ignored internally, they resorted to satirical songs and public protests.
The new government has made openness their hallmark. Publishing mandate letters – for the first time in Canadian history – may not resonate with many Canadians but– IT IS A VERY BIG THING. For the first time Canadians will know what Ministers are expected to do and will be able to judge them on whether they do it. Combined with an instruction to consult widely and to treat journalists with respect and answer their questions, well, it’s a fine start. Let’s hope that they continue as they have begun.
And that’s ten minutes.