Monday, February 08, 2010

Access to information damage control from PMO

Updated (below).

Dimitri Soudas spoke to the access to information breach that was exposed by CP yesterday, moving into damage control-political messaging mode: "PMO says political staff shouldn't meddle in freedom-of-information releases." As has been pointed out elsewhere today, this is quite ironic in and of itself.

Over the years of the Harper government's tenure, the strangling of the access to information system has become a hallmark for them. This government has absolutely no credibility in speaking about a need to keep interference out of that system. "Kafkaesque" is a recent memorable description that has been used to describe what's been happening, in a media review of access to information requests over a few years. We don't even have a permanent information commissioner at the moment. The last one quit out of frustration and the interim commissioner is now working on a six month contractual basis. That's the government's record that speaks to its credibility.

Soudas, who works in the PMO, must know about the access to information bottlenecks created by the Privy Council Office, quite likely under the strict control of the PMO. In May 2008, the Star, laying the groundwork in a series on this government's anti-democratic tendencies, wrote about the access to information hub that has been created in PCO/PMO as part of a comprehensive communications strategy of the Harper government:
Questions on the hot issues of the day all get funnelled through this office, the "communications and consultations" unit of the Privy Council Office, housed in the Blackburn building that fronts the Sparks St. pedestrian mall.

Throughout the government, it's known simply as "downtown," the place where decisions are made on who speaks on issues and what they say. In the Conservative government's clampdown on communications, this is Ground Zero.

Public appearances by cabinet ministers – whether it's a speech or an interview – are carefully staged, starting with a "message event proposal" vetted by the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic wing of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO).

And in a marked change from previous governments, now even basic demands for information from reporters, once easily fielded by department spokespersons, are sent to this office for review – and often heavy editing – before they are okayed for public release, government insiders say.

Working in close tandem with the PMO, they are the filter for information – and often the roadblock, veteran insiders say.
(emphasis added)
Pot calling the kettle black, very much so for Soudas to be publicly pointing the finger at political staffers today on the heels of the CP/Public Works revelation of a particular access to information breach. Access to information has been trampled by this government and it all starts at the top, from the PMO, no matter how they're spinning it today.

As always, the question is what to do about it, perhaps strengthening the powers of the Information Commissioner, for example, to ensure breaches are in fact dealt with and not left to Prime Ministerial spokespersons to issue useless talking points in response.

We count on our elected officials to obey the law, to enforce the law. This is what they like to preach to us, after all, the "law and order" shtick from Nicholson, Van Loan et al. has been omnipresent with this government. When it comes down to it, however, in so many ways that apply to the government's operations, it's been shown to be hot air, they talk but they do not walk the walk.

Update: The point in the second last paragraph about strengthening the powers of the Information Commissioner is probably still a good general point but there are existing powers under the Act that he or she has when faced with a breach. That will be made clear today.