Ottawa promises to ensure healthy democracy in ‘fake news’ era

Poll station workers place a vote sign in preparation for voters on election day in 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA – The federal government says it will try to bolster Canadian democratic institutions in the digital age that are confronting growing public mistrust and concern about campaigns of false information and “fake news.”

The promise, which has yet to be fleshed out with concrete ideas, comes in a newly published draft list of federal commitments to foster open government and a healthy democracy over the next two years.

The commitments for 2018-20 – covering everything from access to information and digital government to corporate transparency and open science – make up an early version of Canada’s fourth national action plan on open government.

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The plan flows from Canada’s participation in the Open Government Partnership, an international initiative that encourages countries to be more open and accountable.

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The draft plan says it is critical for Canadians to have the tools to think critically about public policy so they can participate more effectively in democratic processes.

It says agencies including Canadian Heritage, the Privy Council Office and Global Affairs Canada will take actions to strengthen democracy before and after the 2019 federal election, while respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The promise comes as growing evidence points to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Last September, Facebook said hundreds of dubious accounts, likely operated out of Russia, spent about $100,000 on some 3000 ads about contentious issues such as LGBT rights, race, immigration and guns from June 2015 to May 2017. Facebook later said an estimated 10 million people in the United States saw the ads.

Just this month the U.S. Justice Department announced indictments against 12 Russian intelligence agents alleging efforts to hack Democratic party emails and computers during the 2016 campaign.

The draft openness plan cites the recent promise of G7 leaders to create a Rapid Response Mechanism to counter threats to democracy by sharing information and analysis.

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The plan also pledges measures to strengthen democracy in Canada, but offers no details on what that might include.

“This open government exercise that the Liberals are going through is an element of them seeming to be transparent,” said Sean Holman, a journalism professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University. “But they don’t seem to be interested in actually doing transparency.”

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More practical steps toward strengthening democracy would include a more robust public consultation, a loosening of political party discipline and a push to increase the level of civic engagement in Canada, he said.

“So there’s a whole suite of things that the government could be doing, but a lot of those things loosen its grip on power,” said Holman who is writing a history of access to information in Canada.

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Canada’s latest draft openness plan also includes promises to:

  • Make government budget and spending information easier to find and understand;
  • Improve public access to information about corporate ownership as a way of thwarting tax evasion, terrorist financing and corruption;
  • Launch a website providing easy access to federal science publications;
  • Make improvements to the portal for open government;
  • Undertake a full review of the Access to Information Act, the federal law that allows people to ask for files from federal agencies for a $5 fee.

The access law has changed little since its inception in 1983 and has been consistently criticized by pro-transparency groups as a relic of the filing-cabinet era that doesn’t cover key institutions including the House of Commons and Senate.

The promised review of the law would begin within one year of royal assent of Bill C-58, Liberal legislation before Parliament that gives the information commissioner new authority to order the release of records and entrenches the practice of routinely releasing documents such as briefing notes and expense reports.

Opposition MPs and many openness advocates have panned the bill as timid and perhaps a step backward.

Michael Karanicolas, who conducted a review of Canada’s last set of openness commitments for the global partnership, found that a lack of meaningful access to information reform was Canada’s biggest challenge on the transparency front – one that threatened to overshadow excellent work being done elsewhere.

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“I stand by these statements, and I think they are important to consider in assessing the current action plan, and whether it addresses the recommendation that Canada finally pass long overdue reforms to this fundamentally important piece of legislation,” he said Wednesday.

Federal officials are accepting public comment on the draft commitments through the summer with the aim of finalizing the plan this fall.

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