Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Purple files lead to RCMP investigations & open government opportunities

Canadian Press had more last night on the "purple file" system set up under the Harper government "...to alert the ministers to potentially embarrassing requests made under the Access to Information Act. At Public Works, that alert function had morphed into a political vetting machine." The Harper crew's purple file system is the root cause of the RCMP probe that has commenced into former Conservative staffer Sebastien Togneri's political interference with an access to information request:
An access request in 2009 from The Canadian Press was tagged sensitive, put into a purple-coloured folder, labelled "media," then handed over to Sebastien Togneri, a political aide to then-minister Christian Paradis.

In face-to-face meetings with compliant bureaucrats, and in terse emails, Togneri ordered the release package withheld, then heavily censored, even though he had no legal authority to do so.
This reporting also reminds us of some fundamental hypocrisy here. There is what Harper opposed when outside of government, quoted here in 2003:
The purple file process was Public Works' name for a system more commonly known as "amberlighting," which existed under previous Liberal governments — and was roundly condemned by then opposition leader Stephen Harper, of the Canadian Alliance.

"This entire super-process ... blurs the line between the statutory public service functions of the civil service, and political reporting," Harper told journalist Ann Rees for her 2003 study of the "amberlight" system.

"That to me is really wrong in principle and there is no doubt that this is not in the spirit of the Act."
Yet see above, there is what Harper has instituted in government.

In terms of instituting change, Liberals, for one (you can look to other parties for their positions), have called for an open government initiative which will help combat the murkiness in our access to information regime by posting all ATI requests, responses, and response times online. McParland had a good argument the other day that applies to such promises amidst the current climate of Canadian political disbelief:
"...they have to be specific enough to persuade Canadians they can be trusted (against all past experience) to follow through. That means a written, detailed, comprehensive and clear-cut outline of the policies they would introduce to open up government and entrench rights and practices that are long overdue."
...
The elimination of all barriers that block Canadians from gaining access to government information and enable politicians to impede, obstruct, deny or delay the release of records, papers and data. Just promising a more open style isn’t good enough, the Liberals need to outline the specific legislation they would introduce to end the absurd difficulty anyone outside government circles has gaining access to public information, including creation of an independent body to collect and release data and satisfy public requests free of any government influence, with the budget to do so.
Inoculation from the cynicism in specific promises. That seems to be a worthy suggestion, not only for open government issues, but beyond, with the more attention getting issues as well. For ATI, anyway, with an RCMP probe on access to information going on, even Harper's spin monsters should have trouble fighting back on that one.