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On World Press Freedom week, no one poses a greater threat to free expression than Stephen Harper

It was a wonderful start for a new federal government. The first piece of legislation Stephen Harper's Conservatives placed before Parliament in 2006 was an omnibus bill that promised a new era of openness, transparency and accountability.

The legislation was a breath of fresh air for Canadians who had been outraged by the Sponsorship Scandal -- a corrupt operation in Quebec that siphoned off about $100 million to national Liberal party operatives and senior members of advertising firms from a government-funded program to promote federalism in that province.

"The time for accountability has arrived" were Harper's first words in the Conservative 2006 election platform with a pledge to "replace old-style politics with a new vision." The scandal and the Conservatives' aggressive campaign promises that they would be more accountable and democratic than the Liberals helped propel the Tories to win a minority government.

Unfortunately, what the campaign pledged and the new legislation codified, the government never made happen. Instead of a new utopia, for nine years we have had a very shutdown, closed administration, where secrecy and control are among the core values and the modus operandi.

 

Fighting with Watchdogs

No federal government in recent memory -- possibly ever -- has precipitated more fights with its appointed watchdog officials or special interest advocacy groups than the current one. It's an issue largely fuelled by Harper's insatiable appetite to control the flow of information and the substance of political debate.

Two of those officials -- former Auditor General Sheila Fraser and former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page -- became well-known across Canada as they battled with Harper and his cabinet ministers. The disputes were not just about the essence of government programs but how information was getting -- or, in fact, not getting -- to parliament and the public.

Canadians may remember Page best for challenging the Defence department's plan to buy 65 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin, in a partnership with the U.S. government.  The department pegged the overall price at around $16 billion, and the government appeared ready to close the deal. After Page calculated the price at $30 billion, everything was put on hold. But Page and his successor Jean-Denis Fréchette are far less known for another battle that typifies the struggle over transparency and the quest for secrecy in the Harper era.

Page was concerned about how the 2012 budget's $5.2 billion in spending cuts over three years -- which would eliminate 19,000 public service jobs -- would affect government services. He asked each department to provide his office with details, but they refused to do so. Page kept pressing, telling the Toronto Star that it's impossible for MPs to scrutinize government spending without the facts. "The system is being totally undermined," he said. "They’re not telling us where the axe is going to fall."

Ultimately, Page sued the government to get the data he wanted. Federal Court Justice Sean Harrington dismissed his case on a technicality in April 2013, though he noted that the court does have the power to intervene in issues like this.

After Page left his job, the Parliamentary Budget Office filed 33 requests -- one for each department -- under the federal Access To Information (ATI) law, which gives all Canadians the right to ask for and get relevant federal documents and data. Only one department returned data the office could analyze. "Thirty-two either refused, provided no data or provided totally irrelevant data," Fréchette said.

 

The Code of Silence

During this week celebrating World Press Freedom it is important for all Canadians to remember that ATI is one of the fundamental parts of free expression -- it allows journalists or members of the public to ask for documentation about government activity and get timely answers. Although previous federal governments had poor records on ATI, the Harper administration sunk to new lows. In six annual editions of the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression's Review report card, the federal government’s handling of ATI received five Fs and a D-. Time limits for responses were continually disregarded and some government departments stopped answering  requests altogether. And, still now, when requests are answered, many of the pages are blacked out, making the responses worthless.

Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault highlighted these problems in October 2013. "I am not the first information commissioner that's been saying the system is failing," she said. "What I am saying now is, failing dangerously...to the point where we're not actually meeting our legal obligations."

It was no surprise, then, that the Canadian Association of Journalists has twice given Harper its "Code of Silence" award, handed to a government or publicly funded agency "for keeping secret what it should make accessible."

How bad is Canada’s ATI law? It is now more than 30-years old and has had no meaningful reform since being enacted. And in an assessment of the strength of the ATI legal framework in 102 countries around the world (though not the implementation and enforcement of these laws), Canada is currently ranked 59th -- just ahead of Afghanistan and Thailand. To make matters worse on the implementation level, in recent years the Harper government has also exempted the offices of the Prime Minister and cabinet officers from the ATI process which means they do not have to answer requests for information.

In her annual report, released in March, Legault called for a massive change in the ATI law and how it should work.  An effective ATI  program she wrote, "ensures that citizens can hold politicians and bureaucrats to account for their actions and decisions. However, in reality, the act that was intended to shine a light on the decisions and operations of government has become a shield against transparency."

 

Silencing Opponents

The government has also moved to silence two other groups -- the scientists who work for it, and non-governmental organizations who often criticize it.

The government under Harper has often been in conflict with science research, particularly when its findings on issues such as climate change clash with the energy industry. The government has restricted the right of scientists to speak to the media, the public and even each other about their work. Indeed, 90 percent of federal scientists say they can't freely speak about their research.

The Canadian Science Writers' Association says that interviews, and often the questions to be asked, are vetted ahead of time, and responses given by scientists are frequently monitored. In several documented cases ministers' offices have stopped researchers from giving interviews. How upset are Canadian scientists over what they regard as severe censorship? Upset enough for more than 2,000 of them to protest on Parliament Hill two years ago.

Also under a free-to-speak chill are non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have charitable status. The Canadian Revenue Agency now more closely investigates what these groups do in their advocacy work. A number of them opposed to Conservative ideology, such as Dying With Dignity, lost their charitable status, while others, including PEN Canada, Environmental Defence and the David Suzuki Foundation, have undergone audits. Countless others have curtailed their activities out of fear that they could be next on the CRA’s hit list.

 

Controlling The Message    

When Harper became prime minister, he took control of all information flowing from the government. In the early days of his rule, Conservative MPs, with the exception of Harper and a select few cabinet ministers, were forbidden from speaking to the media.

In a 2011 article on iPolitics, author and columnist Lawrence Martin condemned Harper's thirst for control:

"In an extraordinary move, judged by critics to be more befitting a one-party state, Harper ordered all government communications to be vetted by his office or the neighbouring Privy Council Office. Even the most harmless announcements (Parks Canada's release on the mating season of the black bear, for example) required approval from the top," he wrote.

Canadians in general assume that we all have the full basket of free expression rights -- including the right to know what our governments do and why. Harper has been successful in controlling the message -- within his party, from the parliamentary opposition, and to the public. Its extent and grasp is unprecedented in Canadian political history.

Free expression, government accountability and transparency are not going to be the "ballot question" in this year’s federal election. But they are fundamental to the enjoyment of all our rights and how we participate in our democratic system. Voters should keep these issues in mind when casting their ballots.

 

Arnold Amber is president of CJFE. 

Image: Flickr/PMWebphotos

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