It's a bit of gallows humour about a problem that began as a minor annoyance for reporters working on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and has grown into a genuine and widespread threat to the public's right to know."My Friday giggle... a spokesperson who emails me "on background" and then says: I can't answer your question."
Most Canadians are aware of the blacked-out Afghan detainee documents and the furor over MPs' secret expenses. But the problem runs much deeper.
The result is a citizenry with limited insight into the workings of their government and a diminished ability to hold it accountable. As journalists, we fear this will mean more government waste, more misuse of taxpayer dollars, more scandals Canadians won't know about until it's too late.
It's been four years since Harper muzzled his cabinet ministers and forced reporters to put their names on a list during rare press conferences in hopes of being selected to ask the prime minster a question.
More recently, information control has reached new heights. Access to public events is now restricted. Photographers and videographers have been replaced by hand-out photos and footage shot by the prime minister's press office and blitzed out to newsrooms across Canada.
Those hand-out shots are, unfortunately, widely used by media outlets, often without the caveat that they are not real journalism.
In the end, that means Canadian only get a sanitized and staged version of history ~ not the real history.
Meanwhile, the quality of factual information provided to the public has declined steadily. Civil servants ~ scientists, doctors, regulators, auditors and policy experts, those who draft public policy and can explain it best to the population ~ cannot speak to the media.
In addition, the Access to Information system has been "totally obliterated" by delays and denials, according to a scathing report by the country's information commissioner. Requests are met with months-long delays, needless censoring and petty political interference ~ the most cringe-worthy recent example involves a bureaucrat forced to make a mad dash to the mailroom to rescue a report on Canada's real estate holdings after a senior political aide ordered the report "unreleased."
Politicians should not get to decide what information is released. This information belongs to Canadians, the taxpayers who paid for its production. Its release should be based on public interest, not political expediency.
This breeds contempt and suspicion of government. How can people know the maternal-health initiative has been well thought out or that the monitoring of aboriginal bands has been done properly if all Canadians hear is: "Trust us"?
Reporters have been loath to complain about this problem. But this needs to change. This is not about deteriorating working conditions for journalists. It's about the deterioration of democracy itself.
Last month, reporters gathered in Montreal at the Canadian Association of Journalists' conference to discuss these issues. On behalf of our members, we are calling on journalists to stand together and push back by refusing to accept vague email responses to substantive questions that require an interview with a cabinet minister or a senior civil servant. We are also asking journalists to stop running hand-out photos and video clips.
We are also calling on journalists to explain better to readers and viewers just how little information Ottawa has provided for a story. Every time a minister refuses to comment, a critical piece of information is withheld or an access request is delayed, Canadians deserve to know.
Finally, we are asking editors to devote the time and money it takes to dig beyond the stage-managed press conferences to get to the real story.
This is not about ideology or partisanship on the part of journalists. Journalists aren't looking to judge the policies of the Conservative government. Rather, we want to ensure the public has enough information to judge for themselves.
Journalists are your proxies. At our best, we ask the questions you might ask if you had a few minutes with your prime minister or with Environment Canada's top climatologist. When we can't get basic information, we can't hold your government to account on your behalf. In order to have a genuine debate about matters of national interest, people need information. In order for citizens to be involved and engaged and make smart choices at voting time, they need information. It's time we got some.
President, Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery
Mary Agnes Welch
President, Canadian Association of Journalists
President, Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec
President, Alberta Legislature Press Gallery
President, New Brunswick Press Gallery
President, Newfoundland Press Gallery
President, Quebec Press Gallery
President, Press Gallery of the Prince Edward Island Legislative Assembly
President, Saskatchewan Legislature Press Gallery Association
I posted a partial list of public servants who have run afoul of Stephen Harper, building on a list compiled by Jill Mahoney, in the Globe and Mail. I picked up a few more from Chantal Hebert, and now the Vancouver Sun has added several more.
And what were their crimes? They were under the mistaken belief that they worked for the public, hence the name.
But now that we are officially a fascist country, we need to change their name to Harper Servants. Although 'servants' gives a suggestion that they are free to serve others. Let's make it Harper Slaves, who answer to him and him alone. Harper of course, answers to Guy Giorno, as does God himself, but that's an entirely different matter.
The additions from the Vancouver Sun:
Adrian Measner: President of the Canadian Wheat Board since December 2002, his appointment was terminated in November 2006 by then-agriculture minister Chuck Strahl. Measner disagreed with the government's plan to end the board's monopoly over the sale of barley and wheat.
Sheridan Scott: Head of the Competition Bureau, she ran afoul of Environment Minister Jim Prentice over a brewery takeover. She resigned in December 2008 a few days early after being told her appointment would not be renewed. She was first appointed in January 2004.
Steve Sullivan: The first victims of crime ombudsman was not renewed after his three-year term expired in April 2010. Sullivan was critical of the "tough on crime" agenda of the government.
Bernard Shapiro: The first ethics commissioner was appointed in 2004 for a five-year term but clashed repeatedly with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He resigned suddenly in March 2007.
Jean-Guy Fleury: The chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board resigned in March 2007, about six months before his five-year term expired. The resignation coincided with government actions to assert more control over appointments at the board and a letter from then-minister Diane Finley that was critical of the board.
Robert Marleau: The former clerk of the House of Commons was appointed as the Information Commissioner in 2007 to a seven-year term. He resigned after only two and a half years for personal reasons — but he had made public comments about funding cuts to his office and was skeptical of the government's commitment to reforming the Access Act.
Arthur Carty: National science adviser. His position was phased out when he retired on March 31, 2008. Carty was critical of the government's decision to disband the office. He was first appointed by then-prime minister Paul Martin and reported directly to him. After the Conservatives formed the government, he was shifted to the Industry portfolio.
And Lawrence Martin added a new one:
Michel Arpin: CRTC vice-chair Michel Arpin is being ushered out the door. His term expires at the end of the month; he’d like to stay on, but his request is not being granted.
And let's not forget Sheila Fraser, who is currently the victim of smear campaign, orchestrated by Kory Teneycke and Sun Media, in preparation of some reports she will soon be tabling.
My list so far, includes:
Konrad von Finckenstein
Let me know if you have others I can add to the list. I'm also compiling a separate list of those in the private sector who have been demoralized by the Harper goon squad. That one is even longer.
And as Lawrence Martin has written regarding Harper's battle with the CRTC because they did not fast-track his bid to have Fox News North a mandatory station:
Observers of Mr. Harper have long noted that he doesn’t take kindly to commissions or agencies or anyone else who tends to get in the way of his wishes. It’s only necessary to look at what happened at, among others, Rights and Democracy, Elections Canada, the Nuclear Safety Commission and Parliament.And don't be thinking you're going to get out of watching the trash. Stephen Harper has appointed 11 of the 14 current members of the CRTC. That may be all you get to watch.
So the question naturally arises: Do the CRTC board members actually think they can get away with delaying or denying Mr. Harper’s wishes on Fox News North? Do they really believe they have some kind of independent power?
The CRTC chair is Konrad von Finckenstein, and his term doesn’t end until 2012. But insiders report that Mr. Harper now wants him out well before that date and replaced by a rubber stamper. The independently minded Mr. von Finckenstein, who did not respond to queries on the matter, is reportedly being offered judgeships and ambassadorships, one post being Chile. So far, he’s not biting. But the bait might get bigger.