Pressure from top stalls hearing

Boudria's silencing of civil servants sends a message: 'Fear of political repercussions' blamed as witnesses cancel on access committee

Reprinted with permission from The National Post

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Monday, August 20, 2001

Ian Jack

National Post

OTTAWA - An effort to open the country's access to information law to scrutiny is in peril after witnesses from the private sector and Crown agencies cancelled appearances before an all-party committee of MPs.

The pullback follows a decision by Don Boudria, the government House leader, to prevent civil servants from going before the committee to answer questions.

Hearings scheduled for next week in Ottawa are in disarray, said John Bryden, Liberal MP and chairman of the ad hoc committee. ''We're in a lot of trouble. We've lost a good half of the program,'' he said in an interview.

Mr. Bryden said in a letter of complaint to Mr. Boudria that André Ouellet, a former Liberal Cabinet minister and now the chief executive of Canada Post Corp., had agreed to let two vice-presidents appear before the committee. He changed his mind after hearing about Mr. Boudria's decision. Other Crown corporations, such as Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. and NAV Canada, the country's air traffic control operator, have since said no as well.

Non-government witnesses have also begged off.

''There was a fear of political repercussions,'' Mr. Bryden said in the interview. He refused to name the fearful individuals, but said they include information experts who may want to do business with the government.

Mr. Boudria's action led both Mr. Bryden and Reg Alcock, a fellow Liberal MP and committee member, to say the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien has become blinkered and elitist over its years in power.

Duff Conacher, a member of the steering committee of Open Government Canada, a lobby group for broader citizen access, said the MPs' work will be seriously hampered.

''To have government officials gagged and unable to appear will make it very difficult for the committee to examine the extent of the problem on the front line and across the government,'' Mr. Conacher said.

''Boudria and the federal government are continuing to try to control and manipulate the review.''

In his letter, Mr. Bryden said Mr. Boudria's action means the committee will no longer be able to look into why Crown corporations are excluded from the Access to Information Act, and many other issues.

''This particular line of inquiry has been effectively destroyed,'' he wrote. "The committee's aim of examining issues pertaining to cabinet confidences, solicitor-client privilege and federal-provincial relations is also in trouble.''

Mr. Bryden said he still hopes to proceed with hearings even though the work has been compromised.

''We're going to salvage as much as we can. We have an obligation to those who want to appear,'' Mr. Bryden said.

The committee wants to recommend ways to open the process ahead of an internal task force of civil servants expected to complete a report this autumn.

Committee members worry the task force, which is meeting in secret, will urge the government to further restrict citizen access to government information.

Mr. Alcock said in an interview the government is increasingly thinking like its bureaucrats, who have a natural desire to conceal information that might embarrass them.

''We started out that way and it's getting worse,'' Mr. Alcock said.

"When we start buying into their objectives we get into a really dangerous situation. There's a greater risk to people's freedoms from a comfortable government than there is from the actions of any individual.''

Mr. Alcock said he will raise Mr. Boudria's decision at the Liberals' national caucus meeting this week in Edmonton. Mr. Boudria said civil servants could not appear because the ad hoc committee cannot extend legal immunity to witnesses the way a properly constituted parliamentary committee can. He cited as another reason an ongoing court case involving the Information Commissioner and the Prime Minister.

Mr. Bryden, whose riding is in the Hamilton area, suggested in his letter that the Prime Minister and other senior ministers have been sitting on the government benches for too long.

''There is no doubt that those who made politics their primary profession like you, the Prime Minister, the deputy prime minister and others in cabinet have been crucial to the fiscal and administrative successes of the federal government,'' he wrote. ''However, there is a peril. Professionalism of any kind tends to engender a blinkered mentality that more and more accepts as valid only the inputs of those within the profession. This can breed orthodoxy, then rigidity, then elitism. After a time insiders only trust insiders,'' he continued.

''The result is now evident to any backbench or opposition MP. It has become increasingly harder to get any idea or criticism of legislation accepted by the government, no matter how important or how well-reasoned.''

Mr. Bryden warned that the public will not accept the results of the internal review.

''Will Canadians believe that they have been properly and honestly served? The answer, obviously, is no,'' he wrote.

''Nothing can replace the appearance of candour of people speaking in public and in person. This is the great weakness of the way the government's task force has gone about its work.''

He also said he does not regret anything in the letter, sent last Wednesday to Mr. Boudria.

''Everything in it has been carefully considered.''


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