During COVID-19, government transparency takes a beating
By Ken Rubin
April 25, 2020 - Secrecy and autocratic, erratic government should not become the new normal during or after the COVID-19 crisis. Rather, as former health minister Jane Philpott (currently working at COVID-19 intake centre) has said, what is needed is “radical transparency” to keep Canadians abreast of developments. Some see holding daily press conferences and putting some data on government websites as sufficient. Others see a limited-edition Parliament as being transparent. But neither is enough.
Here’s a recent example of events you may not have heard about: the temporary suspension of parts of the newly created airline passenger protection measures by the Canadian Transport Agency on March 13. It was done without public consultation and under it, airlines became exempt until June 30, 2020 from certain partial compensation for disruptions, and were allowed to offer credit vouchers in some cases.
Here’s another example you may be aware of: the government tried, also in March, to give cabinet unilateral tax-and-spend powers to the end of 2021. Parliamentary opposition kaiboshed this. But had it gone through, it also would have meant any associated background records would be excluded from public scrutiny as so-called “cabinet confidences” under the Access to Information Act. For 20 years – until 2041.
Advocates of open government already know that the Access to Information regime is moribund during this countrywide health crisis. Access to Information is the tool by which any Canadian is supposed to be able to obtain most government records; we have a right to know how our tax dollars are spent. But Treasury Board admits that Access to Information is “constrained” and delayed during the pandemic.
Slowing or preventing people from obtaining legitimate information about the government’s COVID-19 response only worsens our information deficit. And the Access regime, as anyone who has tried to use it will tell you, already endured long wait-response times and heavy censorship even before the novel coronavirus arrived. When authorities see information release as less than an ongoing fundamental human right, we are in trouble.
Federal Information Commissioner Carolyn Maynard recently stressed that officials should document in writing their COVID-19 policy decisions, so that these can eventually be released through the Access to Information legislation. But Canadian law doesn’t contain a “duty to document,” and too much decision-making in the past has been done orally or under the guise of cabinet confidences and policy advice so that it won’t, in fact, be publicly accessible.
Some people want only pandemic health records given priority for public access, while others say we need to do better. For instance, with so many government bailout programs recently announced, they want data released on the special interest lobbying for subsidies that are decided on behind closed doors.
Groups such as Access Info Europe go further; it wants stronger whistleblower protection during the state of emergency. That is so people working on the front lines will “be able to speak up about the safety of their working environment and about threats to public health and safety, corruption, and other abuses.” The idea is sound: front-line health workers should be protected by law when they reveal problems with protective supplies or gaps in care.
Some countries, such as Turkmenistan and Hungary, are using the crisis to severely block release of any information, granting their leaders even greater powers. Jurisdictions such as China are using surveillance technology to trace suspected COVID-19 cases and social distance offenders without them even knowing.
In Canada, where officials have a broad array of exemptions to choose from when asked for information, and with cabinet records excluded, not much about public health and the environment has been fully released for some time. That routine secrecy includes data about such topics as toxic public and private sites and the respiratory problems of children due to air pollution.
I’m a strong advocate for the automatic immediate release of public health, safety, environment and consumer data. Holding governments accountable now, in a new unprecedented emergency, is important. And afterwards, we need a radical transformation of how the government handles the public information we are all entitled to.
This story was first published by The Ottawa Citizen on April 25, 2020, and is republished here with the author's permission.
Ken Rubin has championed greater transparency for over five decades and is reachable at kenrubin.ca. He is an investigative public interest researcher, author and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Free Expression.