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The Globe and Mail

Why Peter Milliken's ruling isn't good for accountability

Editorial cartoon by Anthony Jenkins

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Yes, the Speaker has spoken. It turns out that the government is accountable to Parliament. Everyone seems to be happy. Everyone, that is, except me.

While some are understandably happy about the decision the fact is this is lowest-common-denominator democracy. Presently the executive - one that ran on the notion of accountability - believes it is accountable to no one. Indeed, it is not even embarrassed to openly argue the case. The good news is that, thankfully, the Speaker has intervened and signalled that, in fact, the government is accountable to at least one group of people, parliamentarians. On the surface, it is more than a little embarrassing to all Canadians that, to avoid accountability, the present government would attempt to break centuries of parliamentary tradition and violate the very rules that sustain our democracy. Again, yesterday is not a high-water mark - it is a low-water mark for all of us.

But there is something still more disturbing in yesterday's events. If this government is unwilling to be accountable to elected officials who have the power of tradition and rule of law, how responsive will they be anyone else?

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And herein lies the bad news. While our government may yet be held accountable to Parliament, there is a group of people the government has demonstrated it isn't accountable to. And that is you.

Let's assume that, like me, you have no parliamentary privilege. No legal team on your side. No access to the Speaker of the House to arbitrate your request. What is the likelihood your request for government information - even something not marked secret - will be responded to in a timely manner? How accountable do you think your government will be to you?

Sadly, we know the answer. And it is not good. Indeed, what is playing out in the House is a metaphor for what has happened across much of Canadian government. With each regime it becomes harder and harder to know how decisions were made, what has happened, or even the results of government activity. That is unless the government decides it wants you to know.

In fact, it is not out of the ordinary for citizens to wait months to get information they request. Of course, this means that by the time they get the information they want the discussion has moved on or new, more relevant information needs to be requested. In short, journalists, academics, businesses and ordinary Canadians remain stuck forever in the dark, their government out of reach and unwilling to be accountable to the very people who elect them.

Indeed the only thing extraordinary about what is happening in Parliament is that it is a profoundly ordinary experience for ordinary Canadians who might ask a question of their government. As the Information Commissioner noted in her recent assessment, just "17 of the 24 institutions completed their requests in 60 days or more." (The law, it should be noted, requires a response within 30 days). And that was if they decided to fulfill the request at all. So far Parliament has had to wait four months, if the government decides it will hand over the documents at all. And of course, the government may next claim it doesn't know where the documents are - since apparently they are using a highly sophisticated filing system to manage the war effort.

So, Members of Parliament, what you are experience is what is actually pretty normal for the rest of us. Which is pretty depressing.

David Eaves is a public-policy entrepreneur, open government activist and negotiation expert based in Vancouver

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