Freedom and accountability -

Freedom and accountability


David Eaves considers the implications of Richard Colvin’s accusations.

When the most senior ranks of the public service – those who pride themselves on their ability to speak truth to power and whose job it is to protect junior ranks from political interference – feel pressured to do the very opposite, it should send a chill down every Canadians spine. Worse still, we may never know the full truth of what contrary evidence was presented to politicians since, when confronted with countering facts, today’s public servants feel increasing pressure to “put down there pen” and stop writing.

In the end, transparency is a powerful tool, but we Canadians rely on a public service that speaks truth and engages in facts and evidence. If we have lost that, then we can never know, can never learn, can never hope for even the tiniest bit of accountability. In short, our challenges are even greater than the already terrifying allegations that we may be handing prisoners over for torture.

On this issue of access and accountability, Gil Shochat recently detailed, at some length, how far we currently are from freedom of information.


Freedom and accountability

  1. It's somehow more galling that this is happening in the context of minority governance – when one might assume we're at least free from the potential dictatorial excesses of majorities.

  2. "Put down there pen" should be "Put down their pen"

    • Especially because it's a quote, and the original had it correctly.

      Yeah, I know, who cares. But it did stop me, both here and at the Globe site link.

      • There are many grammar and spelling mistakes in that Globe article. You'd figure journalists would have a good grasp of the English language.

        I guess with print journalism facing an economic crisis, proof readers are a luxury that cannot be afforded.

      • I care. I checked the original because I thought maybe the author had meant "her" pen. I infer that the Maclean's writer here did not cut and paste but re-typed the quote entirely, or they have the world's stupidest grammar checking software on their machine.

    • Or "put down that there pen."

    • Thank you for pointing that out. it may be a generational thing, but when I see errors like that I immediately dismiss the intelligence of the individual who wrote it, irrespective of whether it is fair or not. Grammatical errors are inexcusable by someone who writes for a living.

    • Or if the writer is a hillbilly it should be "Y'all put down that there writing stick"

  3. Ambitious civil servants will always do the bidding of their masters.

    That's how boondoggles and scams develop.

    Remember AdScam?

    • Ambitious civil servants will always do the bidding of their masters.

      And ambitious civil servants will be rewarded by the Harper Government. Let us examine the career path of Mark Carney who destroyed an entire sector of investment (income trusts) and erased $35 billion in market value in October 2006 while at the DoF.

      His reward? As Bank of Canada Govenor he gets to preach to Canadians to not borrow so much and save more. Just saying.

  4. Cowardly ministers will always blame their own failings on their civil servants. Remember the whole of Stephen Harper's tenure in government ?

  5. So, anything we can do about it? Sure, we can have the NDP or Bloc introduce a private-members bill, but it seems to me the Conservatives will block it on orders from on high, and the Liberals won't all be behind it, either.

    Of course, if there's a vote we can at least take names.

    • If you think the government is too big then you know what that means; vote conservative. *shudders*

      • I don't think its too big, necessarily, I just think its too secretive. And that certainly doesn't park my vote with the Conservatives.

        • I always thought that redundancy in the public service made the government less responsible; too easy to put up a front on shadier aspects of their business.

          • It could be, but I don't think that's our biggest problem at the moment. I think the far larger problem is that information is power, and naturally those with the information don't want to share. Then, with an internal culture that's accepting of that basic principle, its easy to pursue some shady dealings. Too much redundancy isn't good if only for the expense, but nor is depending on a single human for vital procedures.

          • I think putting up a front is too complicated to risk in most cases.

  6. Laying down pens is not new. It has been going on forever within government. It become endemic when the Freedom of Information legislation was passed. I remember senior officials in the Chretien government doing the same thing.

    • Hmm, I believe you, but where does that get us? If we strengthen the Access to Information law, we get less pen to paper in the first place. On the other hand, at least what the pen does record will be accessible. What's the answer?

      • I'm not sure there is an answer. But it is useful to know that there is rarely a silver bullet that can solve accountability problems.

  7. This has been going on provincially, to a far greater degree (adjusted for the size of government), in the easternmost province of Canada, for the past six years.

    Neither Canada's National Newspaper, nor its national newsmagazine, have shown the least bit of interest in that disturbing trend.

  8. Civil servants must not crumble under pressure from the Harper Conservative government. They must push back. They must stand their ground. They must not self-censor. And if the public interest requires it, they must send documents in brown envelopes. It is hard for a tenured civil servant to be fired, but some, particularly those at the top of the greasy pole, must be prepared to put their jobs on the line. Top level civil servants must start working together to protect themselves from the partisan depredations of the Harper Conservatives.

  9. I suppose, but that also sounds a lot like shrugging and giving up. And I don't want to do that.

    What do you think of ethics classes (real indepth courses, not those three-day "this is how you don't get caught" things) for civil servants and politicians? I imagine it would cost a fair bit and be a forever ongoing thing as people come and go, but would it give us the value(s) we're looking for?

    • I sometimes wonder if it's ingrained in our culture. A few years back, a much younger co-worker told me that you "absolutely, had to be crooked to get ahead". He was a good worker, and a nice guy, but knew that life was all about taking advantage of every loophole available. His view was that everyone was going to do it and if he didn't, then he was a "chump". Kinda sounds like our poiliticals parties.

      • In the 70's I worked in a Prov. Dept. that was responsible for all IT programming in the govt. One of the programmers told me that when they were asked by their Supervisor how long it would take to create the program, they always added X no. of additional weeks/months to their estimate so they could 'take it easy'. I revealed this info (mot revealing the name of the programmer) in a mtg. & was totally discredited. I worked in Foreign Affairs late 60's and even then, every document was labelled confidential as a minimum. Everyone joked about the ratings. I was a secretary at that time and had, I believe, Cosmic Top Secret, clearance. Most of it was a farce. Now, from what I can ascertain, everything is considered 'secret' due to 'National Security.

        BTW, Aaron, thanks for the link to that Walrus article. I'm truly worried and dismayed by the continual erosion of ' our government' in Canada. I have been truly disappointed with the Libs over the years, but believe this CRAP party are far worse in their obfuscation and lack of principles.

    • Jenn,

      The majority of public servants are not unethical and most were appalled and ashamed at what ONE bureaucrat did during the sponsorship scandal. If anything, mid level and senior public servants are now terrified that they will be the next to be splashed onto the front pages of MSM as sensational journalism has overtaken real discussions about the issues.

      So maybe if David Eaves is correct and Canadians should be worried about public servants loosing the will to stand up and promote truth to power it is society who needs to decide that it is unacceptable that an issue should focus the public servant (who has the strength and conviction to come forward).

      I remember a time when Ministers were the ones who were immediately held accountable for the actions of their departments and public servants were truly faceless. That is what governmental accountability is about.

      • Oh yes, I am not suggesting that the majority of public servants would ever do some of the things we hear about on rare occasions. I didn't mean ethics classes because they are all corrupt. I meant to change the culture that secrecy for the sake of secrecy, and secrecy so the guy next to you can get away with stuff he ought not be doing, is no longer the accepted society norm. Society, in this case, being among the civil service.

        Danby, I know how he feels, but that argument makes me so crazy. That is only the way it is because the rest of us allow it to be so. For God's sake, the only people we will hurt by speaking out is the person who did wrong, and the only people we hurt by not speaking out is the rest of us. This is if we all speak out. If we don't, the courageous ones who do get labelled as "not a team player" and are either prevented from advancing, demoted or fired. How on earth did we buy into the spin that we mustn't squeal? Why does "society" have to be so stupid?

        Society can change its attitude. Look at divorce or smoking. Let's do that here.

  10. I'm afraid that teaching ethics has to start much earlier. Parental example is the best teacher. But how many parents do you know who – cheat on their taxes- or do things that are legal but not ethical – or worse yet, tell their progeny – it's okay as long as you don't get caught. If you don't get caught, don't come running to me. <I've heard that one far too often.

    Politicians and public servants are not any more ethical or forthcoming than the general population. We need tougher legislation that is enforceable, but we won't get it any time soon.

  11. edit – if you DO get caught, don't come running to me.

  12. I don't see any escape from the endless conflicts between elected politicians and career bureaucrats. In general, neither creates intolerable imbalances, but on particular issues, both can behave completely unethically. Right now, Colvin is the white knight and Mackay is the evil villain, but there are lots of examples when the the bureaucrat is behaving badly and we have to be rescued by an elected politician.

    The only way to reduce the impact of bad guys in government is to reduce or restrain the power that government exercises. Every time we consider a new regulation or new law, we should stop and consider how it may be exercised by someone without scruple. If the result is uncontrollable, then we should not do it.

    Unfortunately, this is not so easy where war is concerned, and the opposition is playing with fire by asserting that the Commons has or can assume the right to see all information. They should think forward to when they may be in government!

    In this particular case, I believe that Colvin is grandstanding. There are lots of ways he could have leaked this out and this would have avoided this fruitless tug of war over the information. This is the traditional weapon of the disgruntled bureaucrat, and a pretty effective one at that. Why has he so determinedly put himself in the spotlight?

    • Why has he so determinedly put himself in the spotlight?

      Because he was subpoenaed?

    • "Why has he so determinedly put himself in the spotlight?"

      On a post about ethics you ask that question…maybe he thought it was the right thing to do…we seem to be so jaded and cynical these days that we wouldn't know the real thing from Adam any more. If there was any real dirt to be had on Colvin, you can be sure that this particular govt would have found it by now…i'd bet they've been burning the midnight oil in the attempt for the last month or so…poor dears, they might just have to invent something.

  13. "Why has he so determinedly put himself in the spotlight? "

    Perhaps he has accumulated too much ethics training, getting all disgruntled at the lack of response to his (and others – Red Cross etc.) concerns. Perhaps he cares about Canada's honour, or sees a more tangible benefit to caring such as not wanting Canada higher up the priority list for terrorist events. Perhaps he doesnt think its okay to turn a blind eye to torture (yes, even on terrorists) because the minority govt. doesnt think our military resources should be directed at such a "leftie" type of concern, when describing that kind of work to voters doesn't resonate as well when compared to building schools, killing insurgents, operating on wounded soldiers.

    • Perhaps he wants us to win in Afghanistan…you know that hearts and minds stuff that overlooking the mistreatment of Afghans does nothing to advance.

    • So why didn't he just leak this stuff out? The result would have been the same – his verbal testimony didn't add anything to the written record. Making himself the focus of this affair was a calculated move. I don't buy the "ethics" angle. I don't think he did this for base motives, but he is clearly dong more than just blowing the whistle.

      • Oh come on Bill, I guess he was too naive to assume that being open, honest and doing this portion of his job after subpoena was the way to go. The leaking info. method would also surely take away from the actual issues, cast suspicion on its accuracy and turn it into a political story. Maybe because if the leaks were traced back to him, which would be pretty easy to do with the number/type of people who had access to this info, combined with the ferociousness which the CpC would dig for the source – he could lose his job and distract from the importance of this.

        More than whistle blowing and doing the right thing eh. Is he looking for a promotion then Bill? Maybe about to run for a seat? Must be, huh. Sheesh. Naaa, Its definitely because hes a Liberal (eye rolling)

      • Wait a minute, you suggest that 'leaking' stuff is more ethical than honestly responding to a subpoena? That's quite the twisted logic you've got there. Plus, the problem with leaking stuff is that you become an "unnamed source" and therefore easily dismissed.

        But sure, Bill. Keep on blaming the messenger. That'll fix things.

        • But that's my point – by being the named messenger he changed the game. You really don't want stand-up fights between politicians and their bureaucrats in public. It may be fun when you don't like the politician, but the result in the long term is negative.

          I have no doubt that he was put under pressure to keep quiet, and he could have done so in the context of the commission, and this would not have affected how the "facts", such as they are, would have into open view.

          • You have no doubt he was put under pressure to keep quiet, because that is one of the facts that have come to light,. (i.e., a letter from the Department of Justice telling him to keep quiet.)

            I take your point about public fights between politicians and bureaucrats, but I would argue that becoming more transparent would solve the problem. Or at least, it would solve the problem of one being more transparent than the other and the cause of the fight.

            As to your last paragraph, the letter from the Justice Department came when he was called as a witness to the commission, so I don't know what you are talking about.

            Shooting the messenger when he is an honest, honourable messenger, may be fun when you don't like the message, but the result in the long-term is devastating to a society, as this entire thread shows.