Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Turtle and the Transport Truck

A turtle is crossing the highway and if it doesn’t change direction, that 18-wheeler coming around the corner is going to make it part of the asphalt.

Turtles are taciturn critters. Very stubborn. They wish to be left alone and don’t like to communicate. When you try to communicate with them they withdraw into their shells.

They are not like the loons that sing information about what is happening on the lake. Or the wolves that communicate with their night howls. Or, the cheeky red squirrels and audacious crows who never hesitate to offer their thoughts.

Not turtles. They keep what they know to themselves. They dislike sharing information, perhaps operating on the fusty thinking that what you don’t know won’t hurt you.

We Canadians are governed by turtles. Our governments are notoriously unforthcoming. Maybe they feel we citizens are not smart enough to handle a lot of information. Maybe they just want to shield us from facts that might upset us. Whatever, they don’t want us to know too much.

The result is that we live in a country that ranks very low in providing its citizens with the information they need to make intelligent decisions. All levels of our government – municipal, provincial and federal – are overly secretive.

We point fingers and sneer at the often dysfunctional American political system. In terms of freedom of information it is light years ahead of ours.

Americans are willing to share information. Canadians are not.

We have 17 laws in Canada aimed at giving citizens access to government information. Governments, however, have found ways around those laws to delay or withhold information they don’t want the public to see. Usually the information blocked has the potential to hurt a government politically.

A common tool governments use to block the release of information is fees. If a government department does not want to meet an access to information request, it simply places an exorbitant charge on providing the information.

Fees assessed for providing information have tripled in the past couple of years.

Chad Ingram wrote recently about The Times’ efforts obtain a copy of the contract between the Ontario government and Carillion, the company that provides highway maintenance in our region. The Times applied to see the contract under the Freedom of Information Act more than six months ago and has encountered one roadblock after another.

Many people are not happy with Carillion’s highway maintenance, especially in winter. Without seeing the contract, taxpayers can’t determine whether Carillion is properly performing the work it is being paid to do.

Federally we have one of the most tight-lipped governments in history. And that’s saying something considering that governments in Ottawa – no matter what their political stripes – are famous for hiding their lights under bushel baskets.

The current government takes its cue from Prime Minister Harper, a diligent man focused on his own view of the country, and very turtle-like when it comes to sharing information. He has read too much by Cardinal Richelieu, who directed much of the development of French Canada, and famously said: “Secrecy is the first essential in affairs of state.”

Newspapers Canada, an advocacy group representing more than 800 newspapers, does an annual audit on government performance under access to information laws. The results often are discouraging.

Fred Vallance-Jones, an associate journalism professor at the University of King’s College in Halifax, helps Newspapers Canada conduct the audit.

“Sadly, some (governments/public institutions) are getting worse,” Vallance-Jones said following release of last year’s audit. “And particularly troublesome is the worsening performance by the federal government.”

John Hinds, Newspapers Canada president, says the 2015 audit is being compiled and he expects it will be made public in September, or early October. The public likely will have the results before the October federal election. 

That election is the 18-wheeler. The Harper government is the turtle. If the turtle gets squashed by the 18-wheeler, and that is a distinct possibility, it will be partly because of its unwillingness or inability to share information with the citizens it serves.

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