Transparency? Not On Harper's Watch

06/09/2013 02:36 EDT | Updated 08/09/2013 05:12 EDT

The federal Conservative government is now providing punch lines for jokes about how 'transparent' they are.

Q. How much money does a federal employee have to pull in before the government makes it public?

A. About half a million dollars.

Too bad no one's laughing.

In a stunning move on June 5, CPC backbencher Brad Butt introduced government amendments to a Private Member's bill (Bill C-461) sponsored by now former CPC MP Brent Rathgeber. C-461 contained a number of provisions to amend the Access to Information Act, including one that would have allowed the names of federal public servants making more than $188,000 per year to be disclosed.

Apparently this is more transparency than the Prime Minister's Office can handle. Despite the fact that Ontario discloses public sector salaries above $100,000, and British Columbia sets the threshold even lower at $75,000, the government wanted to raise Rathgeber's already-generous limit to match "...the maximum total annual monetary income that could be paid to a Deputy Minister."

In more direct terms, this translates to a disclosure threshold of $444,000, more than double the amount contained in the original bill.

According to Rathgeber, these "eviscerating" amendments were completely unsupported by evidence--a theme that runs through a growing number of this government's positions. In his words:

The government chose to gut my transparency bill despite not a single witness testifying at the Access Committee in support of either eviscerating amendment...The Committee hearings (as all are) were a charade. The decisions on amendments were made by unelected staffers weeks before the Committee hearings even commenced. Compliant MPs just do what they are told by PMO staffers. That the PMO operates so opaquely and routinely without supervision is an affront to the constitutional requirements of responsible government...

In response, Rathgeber resigned from the Conservative caucus Wednesday evening, stating that "I have reluctantly come to the inescapable conclusion that the Government's lack of support for my transparency bill is tantamount to a lack of support for transparency and open government generally."

We agree.

Over the last several months, the federal government has repeatedly thrown up the claim that theirs is "the most transparent government in Canadian history," even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is categorically untrue. Canada, in fact, has been sliding on international transparency rankings for years. We now sit, for instance, 55th among the 93 countries surveyed in the Centre for Law and Democracy's 2012 transparency report.

Even the practice of stomping on backbenchers who push for more transparency is nothing new for this government.

In 2009, the Commons Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee (the same committee studying Rathgeber's bill) managed to overcome party differences to issue a unanimous report in hopes of fixing our increasingly dysfunctional ATI system. The committee had been studying a 12-point plan by former Information Commissioner Robert Marleau to deal with what he described as "a major information management crisis throughout government."

Conservative Justice Minister Rob Nicholson rejected all of the Committee's recommendations, even though members of his own party had signed on to the report. As for the crisis facing the ATI system, the Minister said legislative action wasn't needed because "enhanced guidance and training that can be equally effective to realize continued improvements."

Given Mr. Rathgeber's experience, we are not optimistic about how current Information Commissioner Legault's ATI reform recommendations will be received later this year.

Rathgeber's proposals deserved better. We all deserve better.