A battle between shredder, whistle
By GREG WESTON — Sun Ottawa Bureau
Thu, June 16, 2005
It is an occasion that should forever be marked to honour whistleblowers and the Access to Information Act: The day an honest tipster provided a reporter with three 10-digit codes that would unlock the country's worst political scandal in a century.
The numbers identified three specific federal contracts, worth just over $1.5 million, among the hundreds of government deals awarded to Montreal advertising agencies under the $250-million Quebec sponsorship program.
For the next two years, a request under the Access to Information Act for all documents related to the three mysterious contracts was met with no end of government stonewalling and excuses.
In the end, the tipster was proved right. There was nothing to be released in the three government contract files — because nothing of substance was ever done for the $1.5 million paid to the Montreal firm.
The resulting news stories blew open the sponsorship scandal, leading to investigations by Auditor General Sheila Fraser, the RCMP and finally the Gomery commission.
More than anything in recent history, the Adscam mess has underscored the critical importance of the Access to Information laws in holding politicians and public officials to account — and conversely, the perils of government secrecy.
But the Gomery inquiry has also exposed some grave weaknesses in the federal access laws, flaws that have spawned a deepening government culture that worships the computer "delete" key, and covets the office paper shredder.
In a recent national "audit" of freedom of information systems, the Canadian Newspaper Association reported 75% of federal departments attempted to thwart the public's right to know.
Association reps are scheduled to appear today before a Commons committee studying access-to-information reforms, and they are certainly not lacking in either condemnation of the status quo, nor worthy suggestions to fix the system.
But like all reform, prying open the minds and file drawers of government depends on strong and principled leadership that has been as scarce as Adscam paperwork.
Newspaper association exec David Gollob put it succinctly in an interview yesterday. "The secrecy agenda is alive and strong," he said. "The battle is really about changing the culture (in government), and that requires leadership from the top."
The same message was recently delivered by John Reid, federal Information Commissioner and parliament's champion of the access-to-information system.
Reid's seventh (and possibly last) annual report is also his seventh damning indictment of government secrecy under Liberals past and present.
Reid said when he first came to the job in 1997, he had the impression that "the stubborn persistence of a culture of secrecy ... owed much to weak leadership, not just on the part of leaders in government and the public service, but also on the part of Parliament." Seven years later, he says, "experience has reinforced those initial impressions."
During that time, strengthening the access laws has been the subject of not only Reid's persuasive reports, but also a succession of Commons committee studies and private member's bills.
Paul Martin, of course, has made government openness and transparency one of his umpteen absolute very top priorities.
Yet, for all this government's promises of reforming access laws, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler has produced nothing but a flimsy discussion paper that actually favours more secrecy and less oversight.
The Commons committee currently studying the access issue has a unique opportunity to put a whole new bill before Parliament, completely overhauling a decaying system, and opening government to the public scrutiny it so desperately needs.
Wasting that opportunity would simply be to invite another Adscam.
© Canoe Inc. 2005