This week the Harper government killed CAIRS -- the Coordination of Access to Information Requests System -- a public database which tracks the number and kinds of requests made under Canada's Access to Information Act. The death was a quiet affair. According to Dean Beeby of The Toronto Star, "in a notice last week to civil servants on the Treasury Board website, officials posted an innocuous obituary: effective April 1, 2008, 'the requirement to update CAIRS is no longer in effect.'"
This was also the week when the government announced its new "communication strategy" -- which is essentially its old strategy -- that all government communications are vetted by the Prime Minister's Office. What is new is that communication of independent government agencies -- like the Auditor General's Office, or the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission -- are now subject to the same screening process. Auditor General Sheila Fraser immediately fired a warning shot across the government's bow, putting Mr. Harper and his courtiers on notice that she would not submit to such a policy.
Increasingly, all manner of oversight seems to be in the government's cross hairs. As Jim Travers -- also in The Star -- wrote this week, "Distrust is a constant when a party long in opposition comes to power. But Conservatives are turning a common reflex into the steady erosion of the few pillars still supporting trust in public institutions."
Whether it is opposition parties in the House seeking information about exactly what "financial considerations" the Conservatives offered Chuck Cadman; or the sacking of Linda Keen of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission; or Elections Canada's investigation of the so called "in and out" campaign financing scheme, the pattern is the same. The Conservatives regard the oversight mechanisms built into our system of responsible government as black flies in the woods: they need to be exterminated if one is to live comfortably in this northern climate.
In retrospect, none of this should be surprising. After all, this is the government which invited David Emerson into its inner circle a week after he had been elected by his constituents as a Liberal -- and which brought Michel Fortier into the same circle, even though he had not been elected at all.
Former Conservative (now Liberal) MP Garth Turner revealed in his blog last week that he brought up the cases of these two gentlemen in his first private meeting with the Prime Minister. "Within a day," Turner wrote, "his chief of staff had threatened me with expulsion from the caucus. His party whip had read me the riot act. I'd been told to issue a media release recanting my comments, and to immediately discontinue this blog. In other words, to obey." Turner was expelled from the caucus, sat as an independent, then eventually joined the Liberals. But he still maintains his independence: "Does this mean I agree with everything Stephane does? Hardly. I am still in Ottawa as a representative of the people, who must faithfully give voice to the people and report back to them." Mr. Harper, on the other hand, has made it abundantly clear that his caucus reports to him. He insists that all branches of government follow his instructions.
We live in an age when greatness is equated with the acquisition and accumulation of power. Perhaps it has always been thus. But Leo Tolstoy (whose thoughts on greatness grace the masthead of this inauspicious publication) knew that greatness rested on three principles : simplicity, goodness and truth. The conventional wisdom was a lie. Mr. Harper has been seduced by the conventional wisdom. Several adjectives accurately describe the Harperites -- shrewd and secretive are two of them. But "democratic" isn't part of the litany.