Friday, January 24, 2014

On official business

It's no surprise that the Cons' idea of accountability for themselves is to provide nothing but blank pages when faced with a request for information about their dealings with Senate reimbursements. But one of the reasons for the secrecy looks like a noteworthy story in itself.

Here's the exemption being applied to several pages of the record:
21. The head of a government institution may refuse to disclose any record requested under this Act that contains
...
(b) an account of consultations or deliberations in which directors, officers or employees of a government institution, a minister of the Crown or the staff of a minister participate, 
While the provision isn't as explicit as it could be, the exemption generally refers to consultations or deliberations involving government policy (Canadian Council of Christian Charities v. Canada (Minister of Finance), [1999] 4 FC 245 at para. 30, 32):
Despite the importance of governmental openness as a safeguard against the abuse of power, and as a necessary condition for democratic accountability, it is equally clear that governments must be allowed a measure of confidentiality in the policy-making process. To permit or to require the disclosure of advice given by officials, either to other officials or to ministers, and the disclosure of confidential deliberations within the public service on policy options, would erode government's ability to formulate and to justify its policies.
...
On the other hand, of course, democratic principles require that the public, and this often means the representatives of sectional interests, are enabled to participate as widely as possible in influencing policy development. Without a degree of openness on the part of government about its thinking on public policy issues, and without access to relevant information in the possession of government, the effectiveness of public participation will inevitably be curbed.
In contrast, personal matters are covered by the separate exemption under section 19 (also applied to much of the Senate document request).

In other words, by the Privy Council's own account, communications between some combination of Harper, the PCO and Duffy about the Senate expense scandal were dealt with as a matter of government policy rather than mere personal (or indeed partisan) discussions. Which further discredits the "Nigel Wright acted alone" and "I couldn't have known" lines of spin from Harper - while raising all the more need for an accurate account of Harper's own participation.

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous8:56 AM

    I have never understood the rationale for confidentiality in the policy-making process. It's usually stated that confidentiality allows the free discussion of ideas, and it's assumed without proof that free discussion would be impaired if it were done in public, But if something is being said or done that wouldn't bear public scrutiny, isn't that all the more reason for making it public? If government policy is being formed for partisan political reasons rather than in the interest of good governance, it seems to me that the public has the right to know that.

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    1. The one reason which makes some sense to me *as policy is being developed* is to avoid having people make decisions based on proposals which are ultimately rejected. But even that concern only goes so far - and it certainly doesn't justify the blanket of secrecy in perpetuity (which is of course readily breached when somebody is writing a memoir or offering an insider story).

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