“Responsibility” is one of those common sense words that get bandied about in everyday conversation.
The word initially derived from the Latin word respondere, meaning simply ‘to respond.’ Later use gathered into its meaning notions of accountability and obligation. To be responsible implies, at least to some extent, a social debt. Failure to be responsible leads to negative social consequences, often including formal punishment.
Historically, Canada was established to embody a system of government that demands parliamentary accountability and has been said to have a ‘responsible government.’ Decisions government makes are intended to benefit the health and welfare of Canadians in general through sensible management of public assets, defense of the realm, and regulation of public behavior.
Thus ideally, politics should be about the design, refinement, implementation, administration and regulation of policy. Achievement of these ends may require input from public and professional sources including philosophers, economists, engineers (both physical and social), scientists, legal experts, as well as ordinary citizens.
These truisms about responsible government have begun to break down in Canada. Canadian politics has increasingly been transformed into an elaborate partisan spectacle focusing on personalities and propaganda, a game in which the achievement of a parliamentary majority has become license to impose often predetermined policies that benefit a few at the expense of the many, and to base these decisions largely on ideology or belief rather than on expertise or evidence.
Governments are becoming less and less inclined to respond, either to citizens or to opposition parties. Despite ‘access to information’ legislation that is over 30 years old, governments have become increasingly reluctant to release information. In 2008 the Conservative government terminated the maintenance of the CAIRS system, a public database designed to assist citizens to locate specific data.
The Centre for Law and Democracy released a report in 2012 entitled “Failing to Measure Up: an Analysis of Access to Information Legislation in Canadian Jurisdictions.” It comments: “Canada’s access to information laws seem custom designed to enable politicians and bureaucrats to avoid disclosing anything that they would rather keep secret.” Based on a wide variety of performance indicators, Canada places behind Colombia and Mongolia, 55th in the world.
It is shocking how frequently ministers are “unavailable for comment.” Like children hiding in their rooms until parental displeasure blows over, these officials simply refuse to respond to criticism or inquiry until the next story in the news cycle displaces concerns over their current gaffe or malfeasance.
Canada’s current government’s policies seem to be based on ideology and belief rather than on diverse expertise and evidence. Jeff Rubin, former economist for CIBC, commented that he couldn’t remember any government that had ever focused on one area of the economy (oil and gas) to the detriment of the rest in the way this one has.
In parliament itself, opposition MPs contend with massive ‘omnibus’ bills affecting dozens of different legal areas, bills that are rammed through necessary votes through closure with inadequate time for study or amendment.
Harper has attended only 35 per cent of daily parliamentary question periods so far this year. The Conservative government responds through junior officials parroting talking points.
Propaganda? The Toronto Star reported in August of 2014 that over 3,000 “information services” staff work for the Harper government at an estimated cost of $263 million a year! Allow freedom of information, free speech? Government scientists (Canadian citizens) must get permission from the Prime Minister’s Office to speak freely to the public about their research.
To parliament and to Canada’s citizens, Harper’s Conservative government is tiresomely patriarchal, dishonest, manipulative, and profoundly irresponsible.
Retired English teacher Al Lehmann lives in Terrace, B.C.