COMMENTARY: Liberals flunk transparency test with Jaspal Atwal affair
“As the saying goes, sunlight is the world’s best disinfectant. Liberals will shed new light on the government and ensure that it is focused on the people it is meant to serve: Canadians.”
Thus spoke Liberal leader Justin Trudeau during the 2015 federal election. His words graced the pages of the “openness and transparency section” of the Liberal platform, which made a slew of promises, including a thorough overhaul of the Access to Information Act and creation of an all-party national security oversight committee. The Liberals also pledged to open up government, which “(u)nder Stephen Harper … has grown secretive and closed-off from Canadians. Unprecedented power has been concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister and his office.”
Instead, the Liberals offered a change: trust. “Transparent government is good government. If we want Canadians to trust their government, we need a government that trusts Canadians.”
Trust – or the lack of it — was indeed one of the issues that undid the Harper Conservatives. From muzzled scientists to the Mike Duffy affair, the government stood accused of both silence and spin. The media seized on the narrative as well. In 2012, the Canadian Association of Journalists awarded the Tories the dubious “Code of Silence Award,” and after the Liberals were elected, the Toronto Star editorial board urged them to “reverse Harper’s legacy of secrecy.” “[T]he Liberal government’s best strategy might simply be to set a virtuous example when it comes to sharing information, including findings that don’t cast it in a particularly good light. That is the test by which Trudeau’s promises of openness should be judged.”
If that’s the test, the Liberals have flunked, big time. After three years in power, openness has given way to opacity. Just this week, it took a grilling by the opposition to get the prime minister to admit that he received an overnight bag from the Aga Khan as a gift during his now-infamous vacation on Bell Island. Trudeau hadn’t disclosed the gift because it was deemed “unacceptable” by the Ethics Commissioner, and thus did not have to be publicly disclosed due to the wording of the Conflict of Interest Act, which only requires the disclosure of “acceptable” gifts over the amount of $200, other than those from a relative or friend. Trudeau still refuses to reveal the value of the gift or what happened to it, and while it might appear petty to insist on knowing whether the bag was Walmart or Vuitton, that’s what you get when you win power over promises to “do things differently” from your secretive predecessors.
The bigger issue, however, remains the government’s continued stonewalling on the Atwal affair, which has already engendered one filibuster and threatens to spawn another. In this case, the Liberals are refusing to allow national security adviser Daniel Jean to explain to MPs remarks he made during a media briefing, that forces within the Indian government sought to embarrass Trudeau by inviting Jaspal Atwal, a former Sikh extremist and convicted attempted murderer, to state functions on the prime minister’s recent tour of India. Atwal has refuted Jean’s statements, the Indian government expressed outrage, and opposition MPs have accused the PM of using Jean to “spin a conspiracy theory that somehow the Indian government is trying to make the Liberals look bad.” In response, Trudeau has defended Jean’s comments, and the Liberals have offered a “classified briefing” to Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, but refuse to let Jean testify before Parliament.
WATCH BELOW: PM received ‘additional gift’ from Aga Khan, Andrew Scheer says
The hypocrisy is breathtaking, when one recalls just a few years ago how mercilessly the Liberals pilloried the Conservatives over the Duffy affair. At issue there was whether PM Harper’s Chief of Staff Nigel Wright had informed his boss of a personal payout to Duffy to make the senator “whole” for improperly claimed expenses which he then had to pay back. Trudeau demanded that PMO staffers be fired and that Harper come clean on his role in the affair. Did he know about the money? Had he asked that it be paid? Chided Trudeau, “Mr. Harper continues to ignore the calls for answering questions for explaining why he keeps these people who have been involved in a cover-up to hide the truth from Canadians, why he continues to keep them around him and indeed running his campaign.”
Now that the shoe is on the other foot, however, it’s crickets. And the silence is deafening: a 2017 access to information audit funded by industry group, News Media Canada, representing more than 800 print and digital titles, gave the government a failing grade. “The Liberal government has a long way to go if it is to deliver on its promises of transparent government,” read the report, which noted that the system is bogged down to the point where it often doesn’t work at all. In response, the Liberals blamed their Conservative predecessors – but have yet to remedy the issues that plague the system. They have failed to amend the Access to Information Act as promised, and the current legislation they have proposed earned scorn from outgoing Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault who stated that “Bill C-58 is a bill for the bureaucracy, it’s definitely not a bill for transparency.”
Why? Because for the Liberals as for all governments, secrecy suits them just fine. Information is power, and keeping a lid on embarrassing gaffes or compromising reports helps maintain power, by denying the opposition and the media ammunition to take you down. Problem is, when you set the bar for transparency so high, you also set yourself up for a giant fall. Sunlight may be a disinfectant, but it is also merciless. If Trudeau is to avoid the fate of Icarus, he should have promised less – and delivered more.
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