The Harper Index

Authoritarianism creeps into culture of Harper government

Killing CAIRS database makes it easier to delay, obfuscate and withhold information - journalists.

Journalists say Vic Toews (left of Stockwell Day) and Harper must reinstate government transparencyOTTAWA, MAY 6, 2008: Although Stephen Harper ran for prime minister on a platform of transparency and openness, his administration has developed a culture of creeping authoritarianism. Last week's sneak shut-down of the public database of access- to-information requests, the government's continued attacks on Elections Canada, and deceptive tactics used in the "in- and-out" election finance debate, are the latest evidence of this tendency.

On May 2, the government quietly announced it would no longer support the access-to-information registry used by reporters, researchers and ordinary citizens to hold governments accountable. The Coordination of Access to Information Requests System (CAIRS) is a list of information requests filed with federal departments and agencies. Citizens wanting information on government activities could consult CAIRS and, if they spotted a request of interest, could ask for the contents of what was released under the request. Information disclosed in this way was often used to embarrass governments or contradict their claims.

"Killing this registry will make it more difficult for all of us to hold the federal government to account," Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) president Mary Agnes Welch said in a news release. "We are asking Treasury Board President Vic Toews and Prime Minister Stephen Harper to reinstate updates to the database in order to maintain an effective tool in keeping their government open and accountable."

"Without updates to the database, it will become only easier over time for federal departments to delay, obfuscate and potentially withhold valuable government information," said the release.

CBC journalist David McKie has been involved, since 2006, in posting information from the CAIRS database to the Internet on a voluntary basis through the website OnlineDemocracy.ca. Every month he would file a blanket request for all access requests filed that month, and, after a time lag of two or three months, would receive the list, which he would then post online.

He told HarperIndex.ca, in a telephone interview, "This was a very democratic tool." It was quick and easy to use, but now the source information will no longer be made available.

McKie said, "The people I'm speaking with are scratching their heads. They're wondering why we are talking about less transparency rather than more," in light of Harper's having been elected with "the promise of more openness and transparency." McKie pointed out that, ironically, the Sponsorship Scandal, which led to Harper's election, was exposed through access-to-information requests.

Chilling lawsuits, misquotes and outright lies
Meanwhile, debate continues over election financing and whether the Conservatives' use of "in-and-out" financing constituted an illegal scam to bilk taxpayers of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although it is the Conservative Party of Canada that is under investigation, the Conservatives claim the affair began when they sued Elections Canada (EC) over being denied financial rebates for the alleged "in-and-out" transactions. The Conservatives then claimed that EC only raided the party headquarters "in retaliation" for the civil suit.

The lawsuit is unprecedented. No political party, much less a governing one, has ever sued a government agency. No other party could even afford such a move.

Last week, StraightGoods.ca ran an article by Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch, about how the Harper government deliberately misquoted him in the debate on the issue. For instance, on April 16, government House leader Peter Van Loan told Parliament "Mr Speaker, let us remember that this was a dispute initiated in the courts by the Conservative Party of Canada because of the unequal treatment of the Conservative Party compared with other parties, including the NDP... It has been going on for years. Duff Conacher said that on television. He said it is legal."

Conacher saw red when he heard of this. "Peter Van Loan lied when he claimed that I said the Conservatives' TV ad spending scheme during the last election was legal. In fact, I said very clearly that I believe the scheme was illegal," he wrote. "Mr. Van Loan owes me and Democracy Watch an apology for so blatantly abusing our good name in trying to excuse the Conservatives' dangerously undemocratic activities."

Harper Conservative vs. Public Values Frame
  Authoritarianism, secrecy / Openness, transparency, accountability

Links and sources
  Harper government kills key information registry, Canadian Press, May 3, 2008
  Tories in damage control, Ottawa Sun, April 21, 2008

Posted: May 06, 2008

Harper Index (HarperIndex.ca) is a project of the Golden Lake Institute and the online publication StraightGoods.ca


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