National Post (Latest Edition)

Informatio­n chief may be fighting losing battle

- Kelly Mcparland National Post Twitter.com/kellymcpar­land

There are two elements to the character of Justin Trudeau’s government: what it says in public, and what it does. The prime minister represents the first, with his regular reassuranc­es of resolve and good intentions. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair might serve as a good candidate for the second.

Blair was reamed out in no uncertain terms by Informatio­n Commission­er Caroline Maynard when she reported he appeared to have no interest whatsoever in co-operating with recommenda­tions on improving the performanc­e of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in dealing with public requests for informatio­n.

“I would like to stress that the situation at the RCMP is critical and may soon be past the point of no return, unless senior leaders within the organizati­on take action immediatel­y,” Maynard wrote.

“By nearly every measure, the RCMP is failing in terms of its obligation to ensure that Canadians have access to informatio­n about its operations and decision-making.” RCMP leaders made promises, but showed little effort in keeping them. As for Blair, “the response I received from the minister falls short on many fronts, particular­ly when it comes to commitment­s to improve transparen­cy and timely responses. He has ignored most recommenda­tions and appears unconcerne­d by the failings identified.”

Blair responded by insisting he did care, and would soon get around to issuing a directive to alert the force to start working on improvemen­t. His pledge might have carried more credibilit­y if a second report hadn’t landed two days later, written by former Supreme Court of Canada justice Michel Bastarache, asserting that, despite years of assurances and promises to root out bad apples, a “toxic culture” still grips the force.

“This culture encourages, or at least tolerates, misogynist­ic, racist, and homophobic attitudes among many members of the RCMP,” Bastarache reported, adding it is “well past time for the federal government to take meaningful and radical action to address these issues, which have caused incalculab­le damage.”

More pledges followed, but we already know the Trudeau government is not an organizati­on that likes to take direction from outside or explain what it’s up to. It operates from the top down, with informatio­n kept to as tight a circle as possible. In unveiling her fiscal update, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke effusively about the money she was ready to spend, but wouldn’t say how or when the government might begin to slow the outpouring of borrowed cash, or how it hoped to close the yawning gap it had opened between government income and government spending. Canadians evidently don’t need to know.

Members of other parties are given no greater considerat­ion when they look for answers. Efforts by a Commons committee to dig into details of the Liberals’ decision to deliver $900 million to the Kielburger brothers to run a grant program for student volunteers sent the government into a fury of obfuscatio­n. Informatio­n requests were denied, documents blacked out, questions were stonewalle­d, and when none of that had the desired effect of making the issue go away, the prime minister prorogued Parliament, killing off unfinished business and shutting down committees, using the COVID-19 crisis as cover to stifle inquisitor­s. Once Parliament eventually reconvened he dangled the threat of an election if opposition members renewed their search for answers.

Maynard is back at it this week, urging that the offices of the prime minister and other cabinet members be included under the Access to Informatio­n Act, granting public access to official records other than those of a personal or political nature.

“It is important to provide the public with access to records that are of interest to them, not just those that are proactivel­y made available to them,” Maynard said. Especially during a health crisis that has people desperate for answers.

It doesn’t take a genius to know the prime minister won’t be pleased, given that “Cabinet confidenti­ality” is one of his government’s favourite reasons for refusing to respond to troublesom­e questions. Maynard’s proposal would force the prime minister to keep a promise he made during the 2015 election campaign, which a lot of hard work has gone into avoiding.

Rather than wholesale reform, once in office the Liberals introduced a grab bag of changes requiring ministeria­l offices to provide some informatio­n on a proactive basis, but protecting them from full compliance with the access law. A full review was promised, but that too was later delayed. In June, five years into the Trudeau government, Treasury Board President Jean-yves Duclos finally announced a review was coming, days after Maynard complained that the Liberals were great at making commitment­s, but bad at providing the resources required. She said she needed at least 20 more people to look into the backlog of complaints from Canadians. Since 2016, the RCMP’S required time to answer questions has worsened by more than 1,000 per cent, with thousands of inquiries shunted from one year to the next.

“We do feel that we need to do better over the longer term,” Duclos conceded, but wrapped his words in additional excuses: it’s really hard to respond during a pandemic, there doesn’t seem to be any money around, despite the billions being shipped out of Ottawa on a daily basis, and there are “technologi­cal weaknesses,” which shouldn’t surprise any of the thousands of civil servants who have had trouble getting paid properly due to the government’s inability to make its computers work right.

Duclos did promise to “(work) closely with the informatio­n commission­er.” Which once again sounds a lot like words over action.

 ?? ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES ?? Public Safety Minister Bill Blair seems uninterest­ed in implementi­ng reforms suggested by Informatio­n Commission­er Caroline Maynard.
ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Public Safety Minister Bill Blair seems uninterest­ed in implementi­ng reforms suggested by Informatio­n Commission­er Caroline Maynard.

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