Retreat Behind the Wire: Only Insiders Need Know

By Ken Rubin-THE HILL TIMES-December 6 2010.

OTTAWA—Ottawa under the Harper government operates with the principle that only a few insiders need to know what’s really going on. This results in tightly-controlled spin on what is said and makes a mockery of public access.

For example, more than 900 Army personnel are to be stationed mainly in the Kabul area to train the Afghan military in the 2011-14 period. Yet authorities are offering little details on this extended mission. And Canadians know little about continued secret military spending in Afghanistan. The government has not been forthright about Canadian Forces’ treatment of adult and children Afghan prisoner detainees.

As well, this last week, via WikiLeaks, the Canadian public is finding out about American diplomats’ communications exchanges in secret with Canadian officials or about Canada. Foreign Affairs, with its below “F” access to information rating, would never be caught considering disclosing low-level security classified data that offer contradictions to official lines taken by Canadian officials.

Moreover, getting to the bottom of the multi-million-dollar spending to renovate Parliament is proving elusive. Yet a much better idea of what’s really going on should be public knowledge.

And, Treasury Board’s recently-announced directive for a limited once-a-year dump of some summary data on public employee travel, conference hopping, and hospitality expenses will not give the public timely or detailed disclosure. It is a pathetic move designed to counter the release of government departmental figures of more than $125-million in the 2006-2010 period for all kinds of hospitality expenses of public officials, including the public paying for golf games and spa retreats.

On the privacy side, the restrictive need-to-know-principle is becoming more a licence to invade or assist in invading ordinary Canadians’ privacy as Sean Bruyea found out after filing and receiving access applications’ responses. More than 600 bureaucrats at Veteran Affairs Canada thought they needed access to what veteran Bruyea was up to, including his personal financial and medical records, after he began advocating for fairer veterans’ disabilities compensation.

The Harper government is reintroducing legislation giving law enforcement agencies access to internet communications. The government is not protesting the U.S. collecting personal information on Canadians, come this January, who happen to be flying over American air space. The government is not backing down from doing random airport security pat downs and installing more body scanning machines at airports.

It’s a struggle when the PM has shown he has a strong preference for a less-regulated approach where the public needs to know little or nothing. This can only restrict rather than enhance the public’s right to know and the individual’s right to privacy.