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Sean Holman's Unknowable Country

Veteran muckraker's new monthly column maps the boundaries of accountability in Canada.

By Sean Holman 28 Oct 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Sean Holman is a journalism professor at Mount Royal University, award-winning investigative reporter and director of the documentary Whipped: the secret world of party discipline.

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Sean Holman: 'At the beginning of the 21st century, we find ourselves residents of an unknowable country.'

"Freedom of information is the expression of Canadians' core values. It is fundamental to the functioning of democracy."

Canada's information commissioner, Suzanne Legault, made that pronouncement earlier this month in a news release urging a modernization of the laws that allow public access to public records.

But while it's undeniable that transparency is the mother of accountability, our core values -- and whether freedom of information expresses them -- are debatable.

Legault's office hasn't polled Canadians to test that contention. A spokesperson for the office said it doesn't have a mandate to survey citizens about their attitudes toward information issues -- unlike the country's better-funded privacy commissioner.

But the best indication of our core values might not be found in any poll. Instead, it might be found in our continued support for Canada's predominant political system, which is 116 years older than the country's access to information law.

In that system, decision-making rarely happens in the sunshine of our legislatures.

Instead, it happens in dark, private spaces -- such as caucus and cabinet meetings -- whose secret proceedings are protected by pledges of confidentiality and fortified by the force of law.

It is there, and often only there, that our representatives can express dissenting views. But even then they may risk punishment for doing so.

Ghost officials

Outside those spaces, our representatives are usually expected to vote and voice the party line, regardless of whether it's inconsistent with their views and those of their constituents.

That means a party with a majority has the power to get whatever it wants in our legislatures -- public spaces where government decisions are disclosed but almost never defeated or amended without the government's consent.

The underlying assumption behind this political system is that privacy is necessary for decision-making.

It's an assumption expressed in our freedom of information laws, which put Canada's most informative records under lock and key.

For example, the federal Access to Information Act doesn't allow access to the cabinet and it protects most cabinet documents from prying eyes for 20 years.

The act allows the government to refuse access to any documents that contain advice for cabinet ministers.

And it can keep accounts of "consultations or deliberations" that include cabinet ministers or their staff out of public hands.

In other words, on paper our top political officials are ghosts in the machinery of government.

It is they who pull the levers. And yet their fingerprints are often rendered invisible to the citizens they supposedly represent.

Sacrificed transparency

It's easy to disagree with such opacity -- making it easy, as Legault has, to conclude that freedom of information is the expression of our core values.

Yet I wonder how many Canadians would disagree with the assumption that privacy is necessary for decision-making?

Because once you accept that assumption, as many of our political leaders have, it becomes easier to reject requests for information about such decisions.

What that says about our core values is admittedly debatable. It suggests freedom of information is not an expression of those values or, at the very least, that we have conflicting values.

But what's undeniable is that at the beginning of the 21st century, we find ourselves residents of an unknowable country.

It is a nation of the governed rather than the self-governed -- a place where transparency is routinely sacrificed on the high altar of peace, order and what some would call good governance.

In this monthly column for J-Source and The Tyee, I'll be continuing this conversation, mapping the boundaries of openness and accountability in Canada and exploring what they mean for the people, the press and the powerful.

I invite you to be a participant online and at the column's Facebook page.  [Tyee]

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