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Trudeau’s ‘open government’ plan guaranteed to make waves in Ottawa

The Canadian flag flies on Parliament Hill.

BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS

Parliament Hill is in for a major shakeup should Justin Trudeau follow through with his ambitious pledge to reform Question Period, give more power to committees and allow all government documents to be available by default.

The e-mails of political staffers working in the Prime Minister's Office and for cabinet ministers would no longer be exempt from the Access to Information Act. Parliamentary committees would be given more research money and chairpersons would be elected by secret ballot, rather than appointed by the PMO. Free votes would be the norm, rather than the exception.

Those are a few of the "open government" promises that Mr. Trudeau, now prime-minister-designate, approved in his party's election platform.

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During the campaign, Mr. Trudeau sided with critics who have long argued that the centralization of power in the Prime Minister's Office is a growing trend that started more than three decades ago under his father, Pierre Trudeau.

"I actually quite like the symmetry of me being the one who'd end that," Mr. Trudeau said in a campaign interview with the CBC. "I think we get better public policy when it's done openly and transparently."

Some of Mr. Trudeau's promises will likely prove challenging in practice. The e-mails of political staffers have always been exempt from the Access to Information Act. The law allows citizens to request copies of internal government records, which can be partially or fully redacted by officials under certain conditions.

The veil of secrecy over those e-mails was lifted earlier this year due to disclosures in the criminal trial of Senator Mike Duffy. The e-mail conversations between PMO staffers proved to be explosive, raising questions as to who knew what at the highest levels of power as political aides attempted to contain a controversy over the Senator's expenses.

While defending himself in the Senate, Mr. Duffy portrayed Parliament Hill as a place where politicians take "dictation from kids in short pants," a common description of the power of political staff.

Andrew MacDougall, who served as outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper's communications director and had some of his own e-mails revealed during the Duffy trial, said in an interview that political staff may turn to mobile messaging apps like Snapchat for sensitive conversations in order to avoid the Access to Information Act.

"It will go back to a more verbal culture," Mr. MacDougall predicted. "I'm a skeptic at whether any changes to [access legislation] will change habits. Political staff are always going to face tough issues. They're always going to have to resolve them. They'll always need candour in both discussing what potential routes to take to nip things in the bud or how to deal with an issue. And whether that now happens more face to face or through things like [Blackberry] Messenger, Whatsapp, Snapchat, you name it. There are many things that are not e-mail that will still let political operatives deal with sensitive issues."

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Other open government measures promised by the Liberals include reforming the Access to Information Act to give the Information Commissioner the power to make binding orders on the release of documents; opening up meetings of the Board of Internal Economy, which manages the House of Commons budget, to the public, "except in rare cases"; appointing an advertising commissioner to help the Auditor-General ensure that government advertising is non-partisan; striking an all-party committee to study electoral reform and introducing legislation to change Canada's voting system within 18 months; creating a non-partisan process to advise the Prime Minister on Senate appointments; reforming Question Period so that the Prime Minister will sometimes answer all questions on a particular day, and longer questions and answers will be allowed. Another key change would be that an all-party committee would be given the power and clearance to oversee the operations of all of Canada's national security agencies.

Don Lenihan, a government transparency advocate with the Canada2020 think tank who recently chaired an open government advisory team for the Ontario government, said the federal Liberal plans have the potential of shifting power away from the PMO and giving MPs a greater role in developing policy and challenging decisions of cabinet.

He said there will need to be debate on how to improve transparency while still giving decision-makers the ability to debate issues in private where appropriate.

"It is very ambitious," he said. "If they do all of this stuff, it should change pretty fundamentally the way a lot of things work and hopefully go a big step in the direction of halting or redirecting that kind of whole trend that's been under way for 35 or 40 years."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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