Radwanski under political fire

But George Radwanski makes no apologies for style

Reposted with permission from the Hill Times

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Monday, May 27, 2002

By Bill Curry
The Hill Times

Two Liberal MPs are attacking Federal Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski's confrontational approach to public policy issues and former privacy commissioner John Grace says Mr. Radwanksi's style is "dangerous."

But in an interview with The Hill Times, Mr. Radwanski defended his style, saying in this post-Sept. 11 world when privacy rights are at a crossroads, it's his job to be much more active to protect the "fundamental rights of Canadians" and said he's much more involved than his predecessor Bruce Phillips. Moreover, he said if he followed the traditional style of other officers of Parliament, his message would never get out.

However, Liberal MPs Reg Alcock and John Bryden say Mr. Radwanski's public statements are so over-the-top that he can't be taken seriously. Specifically, Mr. Alcock cited Mr. Radwanski's recent back-and-forth letter writing debate with Solicitor General Lawrence MacAulay over increased police powers contained in the new Public Safety Bill, C-55. Mr. Radwanski has called one provision a step toward a "totalitarian" society.

Mr. MacAulay res-ponded publicly to Mr. Radwanski's letter to Transport Minister David Collenette which was followed by another letter from Mr. Radwanski.

"What offends me is I think he's deeply irresponsible in how he handles this," Mr. Alcock told The Hill Times. "[Access to Information Commissioner John] Reid's no shrinking violet. He's been in a row with the Prime Minister for a long time. He does the same thing. He comes forward and says, 'Here's the issue.'

"This guy, it's all drama with him. And that creates two problems. It's great at the front end. It's an exciting victory if you're in the opposition. But what it does is devalues the value that he has. That role should be to come forward raising legitimate structural concerns about privacy. When he takes this other tack, he becomes part of the political debate, and if he's part of the political debate then he gets devalued and played the same way everybody else does."

Mr. Alcock also said public servants who work for Mr. Radwanski have complained to him about the work environment in the office.

"This particular guy is causing all sorts of problems and he's a bully," he said. "I mean, he's a classic little guy who goes and bullies public servants. And they've got no choice. They can't go after him, so somebody's got to speak up."

Mr. Alcock has been advocating a new vision of government through technology and has hosted several conferences called "Crossing Boundaries." The goal he said, is to fight the "culture of privacy" in government, but "this guy just makes it worse."

Mr. Alcock said he's tried several times to meet with Mr. Radwanski or have him attend one of the meetings, but was told by an assistant that he didn't have time to meet with MPs.

But in an interview with The Hill Times, Mr. Radwanski vehemently denied Mr. Alcock's accusations, calling them "absolute nonsense." He said he doesn't bully anyone, especially public servants and added that Mr. Alcock is simply mad at him because he had cancelled a lunch meeting with him last year when he was too busy learning about his new job.

Mr. Radwanski also thought it was strange that Mr. Alcock was criticizing him for using excessive language, while Mr. Alcock himself is calling him a "bully" and once referred to him as an "idiot" at a Canadian Centre for Management Development meeting in March in Hull.

"It's probably true that I wouldn't meet now with an MP who thinks I'm an idiot, because I'd be wasting his time," he said.

Mr. Radwanski said Mr. Alcock should read his statements more carefully, because they are reasoned and effective. He cited the fact that his recommendations were incorporated into two previous public safety bills, C-36 and C-44, as a sign that his style is working.

In defending his approach, Mr. Radwanski said the post-Sept. 11 environment, combined with huge advances in technology, requires a new approach for the office.

"I do have a more activist style and I'm, I think, much more involved than was my predecessor. I think the circumstances require it. I think one has to do this job in a very committed way. We are dealing with fundamental rights of Canadians, the right to privacy, at a time when there are huge numbers of factors that bring that right to a crossroads, as I've said on so many occasions even before Sept. 11.

"It requires a very active approach to being Privacy Commissioner," he said. "And frankly, I think I'd deserve criticism if I took any other view of the very serious responsibilities that Parliament has entrusted to me."

Mr. Radwanski's letters to Mr. MacAlay and Mr. Collenette stemmed from criticism over provisions in C-55 that would allow the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service access to information about air travellers. He has suggested an amendment that would limit that access so that it is only used to see if any names are on a database of terrorists. Mr. Radwanski comments were praised in editorials in the Vancouver Sun, the Calgary Herald and in a column by The Toronto Star's Jim Travers, as well as by two provincial privacy commissioners and liberal MP Irwin Cotler.

But John Grace, who was privacy commissioner from 1983 to 1990 and access to information commissioner from 1990 to 1998, called Mr. Radwanski's confrontational style "dangerous."

"It's kind of delicate for me to comment on a successor, but I can say it's not my style," he told Civil Circles last week. "The cause is good, but it's a question of tactics. He's a big guy, he's making that judgment, if he thinks it's going to work, God bless him, but I've got some reservations.

"I'll speak about myself. I always preferred to avoid a confrontational attitude. I think it's counter-productive and I think the commissioners have to remember that they're not Members of Parliament, they're not the government. They have a job of course, but in the end, people who are accountable to the electorate make decisions and get judged by them.

"Your annual report gives you a chance to be confrontational, but a continuing public battle I think is dangerous," he said.

Liberal MP John Bryden said he's "lost all respect" for the Privacy Commissioner because he's a "media-hound" who raises his concerns in the press instead of in Parliamentary committees.

Mr. Radwanski countered that, saying that if he followed Mr. Bryden's advice, the public still wouldn't know there are privacy concerns with C-55 because the bill still hasn't gone to committee.

Nonetheless, Mr. Bryden stated: "I hear very, very negative vibes about him in information and privacy circles outside of Parliament Hill.

> "He's seeing himself as the great saviour of privacy, not just for Parliament Hill and the MPs and the federal government, but the whole flipping world. So as far as I'm concerned, it's a patronage appointment that really has gone sour."

Darrell Evans, the executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said Mr. Bryden doesn't understand privacy issues, though he supported the MPs' claim that many in the privacy community are grumbling about Mr. Radwanski's approach to the job.

But Mr. Evans said the problem is not with the substance of Mr. Radwanski's statements.

"I'm really glad he has been very vocal on issues such as the anti-terror legislation and it's probably good that he's been even more vocal than the previous commissioner, but the jury is out whether this will win us any points for the privacy activists in Canada. And we hope that personalities won't distract from the issues, because the issues are so important and he's got the story right, as he says, this is about personal freedom, and maybe it always has been, but the new age we're in where personal information whips around so fast and can have such a profound impact on people, he's got the right message about that, I just think he needs to work better with individuals and groups of all kinds."

Mr. Evans said people in the privacy community feel that Mr. Radwanski is dismissive of their views.

Responded Mr. Radwanski: "Mr. Evans, I guess, is a privacy advocate. My question is, where has he been publicly on Bill C-55? Where has he been on Bill C-44? Where was he on Bill C-42? And where is he on video surveillance? A whole range of issues that have been raised? I guess one rather wishes that if people are privacy advocates, they'd spend more time advocating privacy instead of trying to undermine the privacy commissioner."

Mr. Radwanski concluded that at various times different groups will either like him or not, citing the fact that the Tories used to criticize him for being too cosy with the Liberals.

"Everybody likes to be liked, but in a position like mine, you have to have a thick skin and realize that there are going to be people who agree with you, and there are going to people who disagree with you, and you can't take it personally. And my job, quite frankly, is not to win a popularity contest. I'm not running for anything. My job and my duty is to oversee and defend the privacy rights of Canadians to the very best of my ability and I'm putting every ounce of energy at my disposal into doing that."

--Bill Curry's e-mail address is bcurry@hilltimes.com

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