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
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
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
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
"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.
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org