Government suppression of public information harmful

Commentary from Member of Parliament for BC Southern Interior

BC Southern Interior MP Alex Atamanenko

All Parliamentarians are responsible for scrutinizing government information to ensure that the government is held accountable to Canadians. However, a disturbing trend is emerging—the deliberate suppression of information by the government, on many levels.

The lack of clear details from the Harper Conservatives on Budget Bills C-38 and C-45 has seriously hindered MPs’ efforts to examine the rationale and impact of the government’s spending plans.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) is designed to provide independent fiscal analysis to Parliament so that all MPs have the information they need to do their job. The PBO has encountered tremendous barriers to fulfilling the responsibilities of the position, including:

 

•  Refusal by senior federal government managers to provide detailed financial data to rationalize expenditures and policy decisions;

•  Lack of cooperation and non-compliance by federal ministers in ensuring their departments/agencies work with the PBO; and

• Consistent accusations by Conservative ministers and senators that the PBO is operating outside the mandate of the position.

 

In addition to withholding fiscal details, the Conservative government is also reducing the kind and amount of information that is available online to Canadians. The British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association has revealed the government’s plan to centralize and diminish information on federal government websites. Many changes have already been made and much information has already disappeared, including the Aboriginal Canada portal.

Canadians should be concerned about these changes, and with the Conservative’s use of taxpayer-funded government websites to promote partisan positions.

These breaches of ethical practice took place when Minister Julian Fantino posted partisan views on the Canadian International Development Agency website, and when the government posted its views on a bill calling for a national homelessness strategy on the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation website.

The Harper Conservatives are also continuing to muzzle public servants. For example, Environment Canada scientists now require approval from the Privy Council Office before speaking publicly on such topics as climate change or the protection of polar bear and caribou. And as of February 1, 2013, new rules were put in place requiring all scientists working with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in the Central and Arctic regions to treat all information as proprietary to DFO, and to obtain departmental approval before submitting research to any scientific journal.

Dr. David Schindler, a world-renowned scientist at the University of Alberta, believes that the government’s closure of the Environmental Lakes Area research facility is linked to the muzzling of scientists and quashing of scientific evidence.

Schindler said that the research that was done at the facility contradicts the claims of the oil industry and government about the impacts of the tar sands. ”My guess is our current managers don’t like to see this kind of research,” he said.

An overhaul of the National Research Council (NRC) by the Conservatives also indicates an alarming lack of insight about how science works. Cutbacks to environmental research funding and dismantling the NRC will hurt Canada’s science and innovation capacity.

The NDP Science and Technology deputy critic, Laurin Liu, has heard from hundreds of scientists who are very concerned about the direction the government is taking regarding scientific freedoms.

These trends are very disturbing and a complete affront to our democracy.

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