REBUILDING THE PUBLIC TRUST FROM THE BOTTOM UP

BY Jim Harding

Everything is fine trust your governmentWithout full transparency there can’t be full accountability. Watching the Harper Conservative’s handling of the Senate scandal, we are quickly learning that the art of governance can easily become about controlling information to hide collusion, incompetence and double standards. None of this will help us meet our coming challenges.

SENATE SCANDAL

Two previously high-profile national journalists who should know the importance of full disclosure are at the centre of the latest scandal implicating the Harper government. The $90,000 cheque that Senator Duffy received from Harper’s Chief of Staff Nigel Wright to cover improperly obtained living expenses and which led to the altering of an official audit clearly breached federal conflict of interest rules. Though Harper’s spokespeople initially tried to spin this as an honourable act of friendship in the interest of protecting the taxpayer, the Chief of Staff ultimately resigned to try to prevent the scandal from escalating. In his letter he ambiguously says he didn’t advise the PM “of the means” by which Duffy was paid. More spin! If this was fully investigated by a judicial inquiry, it would likely prove to be another subversion of parliamentary due process. There may yet be criminal charges.

The use of federal power to undermine parliamentary democracy now implicates the PMO.  Is this political karma? It is ironic that light is finally being shed on Conservative corruption in the Senate when it was the call for Senate reform that first gave the pre-Conservative Reform Party its political traction.

There’s little chance of deflection by Harper, no longer our Teflon Man; no chance to blame past Liberal governments for this. Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau, the Conservative aboriginal leader who is also in trouble, were all appointed by Harper, as was his Chief of Staff. Harper is the only thing connecting all the dots.

REBUILDING TRUST

The Reform Party was right about one thing before it was taken over for Harper’s brutal political purposes: Canadian politics needs to be more transparent. Though this call has been used by Harper to undermine democratic government mainly in the interests of the fossil fuel economy, we need to stick with the original democratization agenda. EKOS reports that trust in government has been plummeting since the late 1960s, when 60% of Canadians trusted government to do the right thing all or most of the time. This percentage shrunk to only 20% by 1990 and while it momentarily rose to 45% in 2010 it was back to only 28% last year, before the recent rash of scandals. In 2011 public trust in politicians was only ranked at 10%, just slightly higher than for bloggers, who were only at 7%, and well below journalists (33%), and much below teachers (63%).

Hopefully we have nowhere to go but up. Harper’s steady undercutting of parliamentary democracy has brought this challenge into better focus, but we’ll need to look more closely at all levels of governance to be able to raise the bar on public service and public life. And we might want to take a closer look at how well politics is working closer to home.

PERSONAL REFLECTIONS

I’ve already seen my share of unaccountable politics from the inside. I had a rude awakening when I was elected to Regina’s City Council in the mid-1990s. When the new council first met “in camera” the city lawyer informed us we now didn’t represent our wards so much as the “Corporate Body”, the City of Regina. This immediately created a sense of separation between governing and the voting public. The inner political workings were somewhat like a one-party state, with the influential councilors deciding in private who would get the more powerful Committee chairs and isolating councilors who would not “play ball”. I ended up being put on the Public Transit Commission, seen as a “low status” appointment. There I learned how slow it was getting small positive change; it took 6 months to get a bus route to the new location of the food bank. Now knowing what was happening behind the scene at City Hall I felt guilty when I saw people carrying their heavy bags of groceries to the closest bus stops many blocks away.

When the council met privately to consider capital budgeting I raised the matter of enhancing drinking water quality and doing more to treat Regina’s waste going downstream into the Qu’Appelle system. The mayor read the riot act, noting that coming property reassessment would increase suburban taxes, which had been under-taxed in comparison to the inner-city. Any additional taxes, he said, would lead all suburban councilors to be defeated in the next election. And that was the end of it; the self-interest of being re-elected trumped grappling with the public health and environmental protection. That was 20 years ago and though the City has made some important progress in water treatment it is still playing politics with its sewage.

I also learned how council rules can impede transparency. If the back-room councilors didn’t want something discussed at a public meeting they would refuse to second a motion which could bring this matter to the floor. After many experiences of being ruled out of order, with no one to second my motion, another councilor and I finally joined hands and agreed to second each other’s motions, regardless of whether we agreed with each other, to ensure that issues being buried got into the public realm.

DECEPTION AND MUZZLING

This other councilor and I once discovered that substantial expenditures had been made without council authorization. A private Executive Council meeting was quickly called to retroactively make these expenditures legitimate. I left this meeting rather than have my name in the minutes and leave the impression that this was acceptable due process. I saw firsthand how politicians can manage public perception to cover their tracks. I realized how the public and even the free press can be reconstructed as “the enemy of power.”

I’ve also experienced firsthand the political muzzling of researchers, something Harper does on an ongoing basis. When I directed the research division in the Saskatchewan Alcoholism Commission until the early 1980s, our bureaucratic bosses told us not to release some of our findings on inappropriate and overprescribing of prescription drugs.  Apparently the government didn’t want to alienate the Saskatchewan Medical Association with which it was in negotiations over fee schedules. A section of the first report was removed, another report on the overprescribing of seniors was rewritten after I left the division and another one on children at risk was never released. The integrated database we had created with federal funding to research prescribing trends was erased. Our research however did lead to new government oversight of prescriptions under the Drug Plan.

Elected officials and the bureaucrats who serve them sometimes chose to govern irresponsibly by restricting the information that gets to the public which elects them. This can hide collusion, double standards and hidden agendas. While this may advance perceived self-interest or the interests of big political donors, it does not enhance public participation or trust. Voter turnout will continue to slide; so may the integrity of people running for public office. The recent BC election where less than half voted is simply deplorable. Democracy can die a quiet death.

The process of winning back the public trust is going to be slow, but it doesn’t have to wait until the federal election in 2015; it can start from the bottom, in our villages and towns, and work its way up to the provincial and federal levels. It can and should start at home. We’re going to need good, accountable governance to be able to meet the ecological and economic challenges that we will all face.

Note to Readers: Marley Waiser, who did research for Environment Canada on water quality in the Wascana Creek, will be the keynote speaker at a water forum at the Bert Fox auditorium in Fort Qu’Appelle on June 22nd at 10 am.

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