Government must commit to more transparency


By Democracy-Watch, 17 January 2012

Today, the nation-wide Open Government Coalition, Government Ethics Coalition and Money in Politics Coalition, made up of more than 70 citizen groups in total with three million members (all coordinated by Democracy Watch), released an open letter calling on the federal Conservative government to expand its current very limited open government agenda to include dozens of measures strengthening access-to-information, ethics, lobbying, political finance, financial administration, public consultation and whistleblower protection laws and enforcement.  The measures are needed for actual open government, and for the federal government to fulfill its international Open Government Partnership (OGP) membership requirements.

The 19-page letter, which sets out 45 recommendations containing dozens of needed changes to key laws, is Democracy Watch's and the coalitions' submission to the government's public consultation on open government issues and development of the government's OGP Action Plan.  Many of the recommended changes were promised by the Conservatives in their 2006 federal election platform, and many have also been recommended (in their respective issue areas) by the federal Information Commissioner, Ethics Commissioner, Commissioner of Lobbying, Parliamentary Budget Officer, Oliphant Commission, and by many other citizen groups.  Many of the key laws are required to be reviewed by Parliament in the next six months.

The Canadian federal government is eligible to apply for OGP membership because it has the minimal, required standards of open and accountable government, and the federal Conservatives committed to joining OGP in a September 19th letter from John Baird to Hillary Clinton.  The Conservatives' two-year OGP Action Plan must be submitted to the OGP Steering Committee in April 2012 at a meeting that will be held in Brasilia, Brazil.

The OGP requires governments to sign on to an Open Government Declaration and set out an Action Plan with clear commitments and timelines over the next two years of changes to strengthen open government in every way, including strengthening not only transparency standards and enforcement, but also ethics, lobbying, anti-corruption, political finance, financial administration, whistleblower protection and public consultation standards and enforcement.

"If the federal Conservatives continue to try to spin their very limited and vague online data activities as an actual open government action plan, and refuse to commit to strengthening the rules and enforcement systems in federal transparency, ethics, anti-corruption, lobbying, consultation, whistleblower protection, political finance, and waste prevention laws in the next two years, they will fail to meet the requirements of membership in the international Open Government Partnership," said Tyler Sommers, Coordinator of Democracy Watch and Chairperson of the Open Government Coalition.  "Secret, unethical lobbying, secret donations, secret expenses, excessive secrecy overall and sole-source contracts are currently legal, enforcement of key democracy and good government laws is too weak, as is whistleblower protection and public consultation, and so many key changes are clearly needed."

"The Open Government Partnership Steering Committee must reject the federal Conservatives' membership application in April if their action plan does not include commitments to enact key measures in the next two years to ensure everyone in federal politics is effectively required to act honestly, openly, ethically, representatively and to prevent waste, and measures to give key good government watchdogs the powers they need, and to require them, to strictly and strongly enforce democracy and good government laws," said Duff Conacher, Founding Director of Democracy Watch and Chairperson of theGovernment Ethics Coalition and Money in Politics Coalition

The federal Conservatives have failed so far to fulfill all of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) requirements -- they failed to give advance notice of their public consultation; failed to undertake public awareness initiatives to ensure the public is aware of OGP and participates in the consultation; have failed so far to consult widely (the Conservatives' consultation ran from December 6-January 16, one of the worst time periods for public consultation given the busy holiday period); failed to initiate their consultation early enough to develop a draft Action Plan for a December 7-8 OGP meeting that was held in Brasilia, Brazil, and; failed to release a draft plan at the meeting.

The Conservatives have, since last spring, tried to spin their limited open data initiatives as an actual open government plan.  They set up an Open Government website, initiated the Open Data Pilot Project (which only makes information that is already public available in a different form), and continued with so-called Open Dialogue through the Consulting with Canadians website established by the Liberals in 2004.  They have also tried to claim that old Open Information initiatives are new, including: Government-Wide Reporting of expenses, contracts etc. (which was initiated in 2004); publishing Access to Information Act bulletins(which was initiated in 1997); a requirement that federal government institutions disclose online summaries of completed access to information requests (which replicates a database of already-released public information that used to exist and that the Conservatives discontinued a few years ago), and; a requirement for online disclosure of financial and non-financial planning and performance reports (which have been made public for decades through tabling in Parliament).

In the June 3rd Speech from the Throne, the Conservatives promised that "Our Government will also ensure that citizens, the private sector and other partners have improved access to the workings of government through open data, open information and open dialogue" -- but the federal Conservatives have talked a lot while doing little to make the federal government actually more open and transparent.

Similarly, in the 2006 federal election, the Conservatives promised to strengthen many key democracy and good government laws through the so-called "Federal Accountability Act", but then broke almost all of their promises.

The federal Lobbying ActPublic Servants Disclosure Protection Act, and Conflict of Interest Act and related MP and Senate ethics rules are all required to be reviewed by Parliament in the next six months and Democracy Watch and its coalitions have been pushing for changes for years.  As well, opposition MPs and the Information Commissioner and the Open Government Coalition have been pushing to strengthen the Access to Information Act for several years.  The Canada Elections Act must be strengthened to close loopholes that allow for secret, unlimited donations and loans.  The Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act must also be strengthened to comply with the 2004 United Nations Convention Against Corruption.  The Parliament of Canada Act must be changed to give the Parliamentary Budget Officer the independence and powers needed to ensure truth-in-budgeting.  The Financial Administration Actmust be strengthened to tighten up rules on sole-source contracting, and the Auditor General Act strengthened to increase enforcement.  Related Treasury Board codes, policies and rules in all of the above areas must also be strengthened (To see more details, click here).  And a "Meaningful Public Consultation Act" must be passed to help ensure representative government decisions.

Democracy Watch's Open Government CoalitionGovernment Ethics Coalition and Money in Politics Coalition will continue to push the federal Conservatives to make real open government commitments, and to fulfill all of the Open Government Partnership OGP requirements in their two-year Action Plan in April, and if they don't will appeal to the OGP Steering Committee to reject the Conservative government's membership in OGP. 


For more information, contact:
Tyler Sommers, Coordinator of Democracy Watch and Chairperson of the Open Government Coalition
Duff Conacher, Founding Director of Democracy Watch and Chairperson of the Government Ethics Coalition and Money in Politics Coalition
Tel: (613) 241-5179

Photo: Alex Brandon/AP