Thursday, May 01, 2008

Clear communication

It hasn't taken long for the Cons to try to backtrack somewhat from their draft communications plan which would force even independent officers of Parliament to have their public communications vetted by Deceivin' Stephen's inner circle. But it's worth noting both that the Cons' clarification still looks to create problems for even the offices which should most obviously be excluded from the plan, and that the proposal still looks seriously problematic even if it's going to apply more narrowly.

First, let's take a look at what the Cons have said with respect to the Auditor General and other offices which would fall under the policy:
Treasury Board officials claim it's a misunderstanding as they try to "simplify" the government's communications policies. And they insist that the statutory independence of these agencies would trump any new guidelines.

"I can assure you that we respect the independence of the officers of Parliament and this government would not do anything inconsistent with the independent role of those officers," Treasury Board President Vic Toews told the Commons yesterday.

In March, he sent a letter to officers of Parliament saying that he accepts that not all Treasury Board policies can be applied to the independent agencies. He said disputes would be handled on a "case-by-case" basis.

His spokesperson, Mike Storeshaw, said that the new communications policy "will respect and maintain the independence of agents of Parliament like the (auditor-general), as they always have."
If there's anything we've learned from the Cons' stay in office, though, it's that the Cons tend to read what they want in the law rather than what's actually there - and Conadscam offers a prime example of the Cons refusing to acknowledge that their interpretation could possibly be fallible.

Based on that background, there's a serious risk that the Cons will handle any "disputes" by sticking to their own interpretation of what an office should be able to say, and forcing independent offices to go to court to affirm their ability to say a single word more. And while it might suit the Cons just fine to mire Canada's independent watchdogs in litigation rather than being able to do their jobs unimpeded, it should be obvious that the effect would seriously affect the ability of those offices to hold the Cons accountable.

Moreover, the Cons' "case-by-case" handling of disputes looks like it could relate to specific communications "products" rather than offices as a whole - meaning that every press release which the Cons would like to see re-worded would be the start of a new battle.

So the Cons' plan still figures to cause problems even for the likes of the Auditor General and the Information Commissioner (i.e. independent entities whose main functions include determining whether the government is hiding information which should be made public).

But let's turn to a broader question which seems to have been missed so far. Even leaving aside offices which are independent by statute, what valid explanation can there possibly be for the Privy Council Office demanding to vet every single press release or public contact coming from every single entity related to the federal government?

From what I can tell, this is the most ridiculous example yet of Deceivin' Stephen's obsessive micromanagement. And it should be fairly obvious that such a requirement will make it more difficult for every branch of the federal government to get anything done - particularly since there's no indication that the Cons have given any meaningful thought to whether the PMO has the ability to handle what would figure to be a significant amount of material.

Of course, it's not entirely clear just how much of the plan is an extension of what the Cons already have in place, and how much has already been in effect for some time. But from Sheila Fraser's testimony, it looks like an already secretive government is trying to put in place wording designed to expand Harper's control even further - and to force even arm's-length bodies to fight for any ability to inform the public. And if the Cons see a need to formulate their communications guidelines on the basis that they can't afford to have any government office speak openly and honestly, there doesn't seem much reason to dispute that conclusion.

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