Ottawa abusing the public trust

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials
Published On Tue Oct 12 2010

In our increasingly webbed world, information confers more power than ever on a federal government tempted to use and abuse that power.

That’s why it is critical that the government share important information with the public in the spirit of Canada’s Access to Information Act rather than try to hide it. That’s why it is also essential that the government protect privacy by safeguarding, not exploiting, confidential information as mandated by privacy laws.

On both counts, the Conservative government in Ottawa has utterly failed the Canadian people as a steward of the information it controls.

Now the information commissioner, Suzanne Legault, is actively probing the Harper government’s conduct — not just the latest story of interference in one minister’s office, but a pattern of abuse that cuts across departments.

Meanwhile, the privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, has found disturbing breaches at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where one critic discovered his personal files were accessed thousands of times over the years, and others have come forward with similar complaints of snooping and smearing.

As Harper himself argued while in opposition, Canada’s Access to Information laws serve as a pillar of our parliamentary democracy by throwing light on matters that the public has every right to know — from overspending on advertising to malfeasance on matters of public health.

Non-partisan civil servants are formally designated in each department to respond to information requests in a transparent way. They are entitled to redact documents that impinge on privacy or national security. Political staffers are supposed to be kept in the loop only after the fact, so that they may brief their ministers; they have no authority to dictate what should be withheld from public view.

Yet that’s precisely what happened in the office of Christian Paradis when he was minister of public works. Political aide Sebastien Togneri ordered a bureaucrat to retrieve — literally, “unrelease” — material that had been prepared in response to an access request. He then apologized for this supposedly isolated lapse to a parliamentary committee. But he had to resign last week when it emerged that he’d done this on at least four other files.

Paradis maintains Togneri acted alone. But the government’s fingerprints are all over this file, literally and figuratively. Togneri implicated other political staffers in his emails, which are now under investigation. The signal to hunker down and hive off information came right from the top, with Harper’s rigid control over a bureaucracy that dares not make a move without political approval.

That’s not access to information; it’s politicization of information. A government that violates the letter and spirit of its own access and privacy laws is a government that abuses the public trust.

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