I’ve always liked to think of progress as being linear.
When I started in this business 20 years ago, governments were pretty open. I had a Government of Canada telephone directory and could pretty much call anybody in that book at any time and get information or a couple of quotes.
So, if it was like that then, and progress being linear, it must be really wide open now, right?
It started with Stephen Harper. When he became prime minister in 2006, he infamously tripled the communications staff of the federal government.
Scientists, analysts and bureaucrats became off limits. They were instructed to channel media calls through comms people, who, more often than not would provide some benign statement from the office of the minister.
Side note: There is one person in government we can still call directly any time and get an answer. Thank you Dave Phillips, Environment Canada senior meteorologist.
The opposition parties decried the situation. Trudeau promised to fix it.
It has trickled down to almost every level of government, political party and even a lot of community organizations.
Controlling the message has gotten out of control.
Just last week, I wanted to talk to our MP Taylor Bachrach and had to go through Ottawa.
Now to be fair to Taylor and his staff, I know he’s busy and with COVID yada yada yada. They did get back to me right away, however, and shoe-horned me in for an interview.
Still, it’s a little irksome having to navigate said bureaucracy to talk to a guy you’ve been able to call directly or flag down on a street corner for 15 years.
It’s just emblematic, I think, of a far greater problem with transparency.
Last week, we reported on a big disparity between the North and Lower Mainland in terms of the premiums we pay versus the claims we receive.
It took Darcy Repen almost two years to get all the data through a freedom of information (FOI) process that is so opaque as to be almost prohibitive.
Also last week, there was a report in J-Source (The Canadian Journalism Project) about Canadian authorities trying to suspend or restrict access to information services under the auspices of the pandemic.
Some information commissioners spoke out and did not end their complaint review services during the pandemic,” the article stated. “In April 2020, Information Commissioner of Canada Caroline Maynard urged federal agencies and departments to ‘take all reasonable measures to limit the impact on individuals’ right to access’.
“But in an April 28, 2020, discussion with access co-ordinators, the senior Treasury Board official in charge of access and open government policies, Ruth Naylor, mused there could be “an opportunity to address this issue” (of legally placing requests on hold in certain circumstances) as part of the statutory review of the Access to Information Act now underway.”
This needs to be stopped. It is not just an attack on our profession, but an attack on the foundational tenets of democracy.
In fact, we should be pushing to open up access to information in a fundamental way.
We now live in a world where publishing documents and data is as simple as the click of a mouse.
The default should not be that government information is unpublished until someone jumps through the myriad hoops of obtaining it.
The default should be that everything is immediately made publicly available unless there is some very serious reason it should not be (i.e., matters of national security).