Keeping secrets hurts democracy

Posted on October 27, 2009 in Governance Debates, Inclusion Debates – Opinions/Editorial – Keeping secrets hurts democracy: The federal government preaches accountability, but is being only selectively transparent about its own spending activities
Published on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009. Last updated on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2009.

Accountability in politics is possible only when the governed obtain fair, unbiased information about the government’s track record and future plans. The federal government preaches accountability, but is being only selectively transparent about its own spending activities. In addition to being bad public policy, this opacity does a disservice to democracy.

The latest example is the government’s failure to provide a public accounting of its criminal justice reforms. The ambitious agenda – mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offences; restrictions on the use of house arrest; elimination of the faint hope clause for the most serious offenders – will surely increase Canada’s prison population and spark the need for more prison construction. But the number of new prisoners the policy will generate is apparently a cabinet secret. The Liberals are asking Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, to conduct an investigation into the total cost of the reforms.

Compare this cloaking to Stephen Harper’s boasting about his stimulus package. Websites, quarterly reports, signs and promotions that stack highways and drape commuter trains all attest to the government’s largesse. Even here, there is less transparency than meets the eye. Considerable work by opposition parties and the media, including this newspaper, have shown patterns of spending to favour Conservative ridings, and suggest that less money has flowed to actual construction projects than the government would like the public to believe.

The person best poised to dive into the numbers and serve as a watchdog is Mr. Page, but he can only measure given the information and resources available to him. He has done a remarkable job at divining the fiscal deficits the government is incurring, exhibiting a better track record than the government’s own Department of Finance. But when it comes to measuring individual programs, and getting the resources he needs to do his job properly, he has been turned back at every opportunity. The Conservatives have hindered his assessment of changes to the employment insurance system and of the economic impact of the stimulus package, and have fought his attempts to get a modest $1-million increase in his parliamentary allocation. (Some Liberals are to blame too: a joint Senate-House committee chaired by Liberal Senator Sharon Carstairs recommended that Mr. Page’s reports be kept secret.)

This sounds like politics as usual, but in bringing in the Accountability Act, Stephen Harper promised his government would be different. In any case, the Parliamentary Budget Officer should not have to police the impact of every government announcement. A more respectful and consistent approach from the federal government where transparency is the norm, not the exception, would help build a healthier political culture in Canada. In a time of growing disenchantment, that would be a refreshing and welcome change.

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