Tax-paying public has absolute right to know – Obama’s commitment to transparency in government should apply here, too

 

Many times a fan of his opinions, Ian Haysom hits the nail on the head with this weeks column from the Times Colonist.


By Ian Haysom
Global BCTV News Director
Times Colonist
January 24, 2009
  
Transparency is the new buzzword among governments. Barack Obama promised openness during his campaign and reiterated his commitment this week to an open and transparent government. Hooray.

He’s not the first politician to promise that government would not hide behind closed doors. Gordon Campbell promised the same thing at the beginning of this government’s term and we even saw, for a brief time, open, public cabinet meetings. It was a gimmick, without substance. Now the doors are closed once again.

The politicians go public once they’ve worked out the spin, the damage control. Once they’ve worked out what’s good for you, the taxpayer.

It was sad to see Attorney-General Wally Oppal on our TV news this week defending a decision to sit on a report on B.C.’s justice system by two criminologists. The report was ready last fall, but the public has yet to see it.

Oppal, one of the most decent politicians around, bristled on Thursday night’s News Hour when our reporter asked if the report would be released before the election. “The election has nothing to do with it,” he said.

By Friday morning, in a live interview with our Morning News, he softened his stance. The report was complex, he said, and had to be studied properly. Everyone in government needed to study it. It needed to be looked at in the context of the province’s public safety strategy. “But I want to assure members of the public it will be released.”

When?

“Soon.”

We’ll keep on this one. That’s one of the media’s most important roles, to hold politicians’ feet to the fire. And the feet of non-elected officials too. Public money was used for this report, the justice system (and lenient sentences) is a hot potato and we need to know what the report recommends.

Our viewers weighed in on the subject on our website. B.C. is the most lenient jurisdiction on the continent, most said. Too easy on criminals, most said. And some viewers gave examples, such as this father:

“I am outraged at the joke our system is. Four years ago a drunk driver left my daughter permanently disabled with a severe brain injury that has ruined her life, and our family’s lives. The drunk driver did the old let’s-make-a-deal game, and got off on the DUI, in agreement for pleading guilty to dangerous driving. He got a two-year sentence to stay home with mommy and ride his horses, have his parties and live his life. What an outrage. My daughter is still learning to read, to count, to talk.”

But it’s not just the provincial government that is less than transparent. Agency after agency announces reports or investigations and then quietly hides them from view, or sanitizes them before the public gets to see them.

Earlier this month, the Canadian Newspaper Association released an audit of freedom of information “regimes” across Canada. Its first headline was about the RCMP. Last year RCMP Commissioner William Elliott apologized for excessive secrecy. Yet many Canadian police forces obstinately refuse to report on Taser gun usage.

The annual CNA audit tests how readily officials disclose information that should be publicly available on request.

As many journalists know, these requests are often time-consuming and outrageously expensive. And when you do finally get the information, big gobs of the pages are blacked out for various, often mysterious reasons.

In the case of Taser use, some police forces demanded exorbitant fees for the information. Winnipeg demanded a whopping $4,500.

As part of the audit, the CNA sent out 219 requests to all 10 provinces, 22 municipal government and various Crown corporations. The requests were filed by students, so the CNA could be anonymous..

The findings were interesting. The City of Windsor, for instance, wanted $103,000 for information that other municipalities gave for free. The City of Vancouver asked for $2,500 for a list of road repairs, information that was sent at no cost by other municipalities.

In a final report card, based on the speed and completeness of their responses and on whether they charged fees, British Columbia tied for last place among provinces with a C-minus. The City of Victoria also got a C-minus. Saskatchewan and Saskatoon were at the top of the list, each with A-minus.

I’m sure our governments will tap dance around the reasons for being among the least transparent in the country. The spinmeisters will be in full flow.

Let’s not be too naive. Some decisions should be made in private. Some reports should be studied and responded to before they’re released.

But the media needs to keep pushing even more vigorously for transparency. The public are smart. They pay the bills. It’s a cliché, but they really do have the right — the absolute right — to know.

Ian Haysom is news director of Global News in British Columbia. He divides his week between Central Saanich and Vancouver.

http://www.timescolonist.com/Entertainment/paying+public+absolute+right+know/1213086/story.html