Thursday, December 03, 2009

On responsibility

It isn't exactly news that the Cons' spin to avoid responsibility for possible torture in Afghanistan has ranged from implausible to insulting. But Peter MacKay's excuse as to why nobody should blame the Cons for the fact that their well-documented pattern of government-wide secrecy is being applied in particularly egregious fashion to documents related to torture in Afghanistan looks to be a particularly ludicrous one:
Earlier in the committee meeting, however, Mr. MacKay tried to explain the rationale for blacking out the documents:

“The decision around redaction or editing – if you will, because I think a lot of people are perhaps not familiar with the word redaction – those decisions are not taken by politicians or ministers. Those decisions are taken at an arms length level by officials, trained officials, officials with national security clearance aided by the Attorney-General’s special department on national security.
So what's wrong with that statement? Under the Access to Information Act, ultimate responsibility for the treatment of records under the control of a government institution lies squarely on the "head" responsible - which in the case of any federal department means "the member of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada who presides over the department or ministry". In other words, the entire basis of the accountability structure in Canada's access to information system is to make ministers responsible for the disclosure - or non-disclosure - of information in the hands of a department.

Now, it's true that a head is able to delegate that power - and nobody would expect that MacKay himself pored over any of the documents now being withheld to determine what to black out and what to disclose/leak. But that still results in a system in which it's a minister's authority that's being exercised by his or her choice of delegates - with ultimate accountability lying with the person originally charged with the task.

Which is to say that if MacKay's statement were true based on any even remotely meaningful definition of "arm's length" (implying a complete lack of political oversight over the redactions, rather than express political accountability for them), it would represent a stunning shift in responsibility for the handling of information.

Of course, MacKay's statement doesn't figure for a second to reflect any actual "arm's-length" decision-making about the treatment of information. But the fact that the Cons have such utter contempt for the concept of responsible government that they're willing to lie about their own job descriptions by pretending that their statutory obligations are outside the realm of political responsibility looks to be a particularly dangerous sign - particularly if it isn't answered with an immediate rejection of the assertion that ministers can get away with inventing non-existent "arm's-length" relationships to escape their duties.

No comments:

Post a Comment