Polygonic

That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

What transparency looks like

It’s easy being left-of-centre in Britain until you start comparing David Cameron with Stephen Harper. Suddenly, you find yourself saying strange things like “Wow, thank god we’ve got Cameron!”

Case in point: transparency. While Harper’s entire political career has been built on the campaign rhetoric of “accountable government,” he nevertheless roosts in the PMO as among the most opaque, secretive, and undemocratic Prime Ministers the country’s ever been afflicted with. He’s Nixon with a migraine.

Cameron’s liberal strand of Toryism may be anti-state, but his professed faith in public self-organisation has translated into some evidence of actual accountability. Departments and ministries are now compelled to release virtually every significant expenditure to a public gasping for knowledge about what’s happening to our finances.

The result, as David Eaves writes so brilliantly in the G&M today, is the manifestation of an actual accountable government.

“Spending data for every British ministry on anything over £25,000 (about $40,000) [will] be available for anyone in the world to download. The initial release of information revealed thousands and thousands of lines of data and almost £80-billion (about $129.75-billion) in spending. And starting in January, every ministry must update the data once a month.”

For Canadians, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government is but a distant example of a world that a truly transparent government could – and should – create. In contrast, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives seem stuck in a trap described by Mr. Maude in his opening sentences: “Opposition parties are always remarkably keen on greater government transparency, but this enthusiasm mysteriously tends to diminish once they actually gain power.” Canada’s Conservatives have been shy about sharing any information with anyone. Afghan detainee files aren’t shared with Parliament; stimulus package accounts were not emailed to the Parliamentary Budget Office, but uselessly handed over in 4,476 printed pages. Even the Auditor-General is denied MP expense data. All this as access-to-information wait times exceed critical levels and Canada, unlike the United States, Britain , Australia and New Zealand, languishes with no open-data policy.

Couple this with some of the more compelling initiatives in the British media itself to aggregate and measure spending plans, campaign promises, and delivery timetables. The Guardian today released its mammoth Pledge Tracker, a downloadable and perusable spreadsheet that takes coalition government pledges and tracks their progress, whether they’ve been dumped, delayed, who in cabinet has said what about them, and how to track them down.

So, in the UK, there’s a chicken-and-egg question regarding government accountability. Britain’s media culture nurtures relentlessly investigative journalism – to the point of harassment as regards celebrity, but also to the point of a carnivorous criticism of bad government, and that’s extremely healthy for the state of British democracy. Would Cameron have unleashed so much data if he felt confident no major newspaper would ever seriously chase him up on his warm promises of yesteryear?

Almost certainly he wouldn’t. Indeed, critics of Cameronian transparency say he’s only staging gargantuan, barely-manageable data-dumps that are very difficult to grasp and scrutinise. The task of sifting through and understanding the hundreds of thousands of line items is left to independent think tanks and newspapers in the confidence that the very act of transparency may make the political point, and that few will bother to craft criticisms of what they discover in there.

Either way, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of what the Reformers could conceive of back home.

You can say a lot of things about David Cameron. He’s slick and insincere. He’s shallow, big-headed, and fundamentally out to lunch regarding how to address inequality, poverty, opportunity, Britain’s place in the world, and the British public’s place in its own country. What you can’t say, though, is that he’s an obsessive partisan consumed with nothing more than winning the petty feuds inside the bubble of government.

On balance, I’m slightly nauseous but secure in saying that, compared with Harper, Cameron is a treat and a half.

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Filed under: Canada, Politics, UK, , , , ,

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