Polygonic

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

The Coyne chrysalis

‎”This isn’t about the planes, in other words, or costs, or accounting. This is about accountability. This is is about whether departments are answerable to their ministers, and whether ministers are answerable to Parliament — or whether billions of public dollars can be appropriated without the informed consent of either Parliament or the public… And it is about whether we, as citizens, are prepared to pay attention, and hold people in power to account when they lie to us.

Which is to say, it is about whether we live in a functioning Parliamentary democracy, or want to.” 

Andrew Coyne, National Post, April 11, 2012.

Thanks to EnoughHarper for highlighting this

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

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.

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

The trust gap

Despite that unexpressive, grey-play-dough demeanour about him, Stephen Harper doesn’t make life easy for himself.

Mainstream Canada’s biggest problem with Harper isn’t even his policies, but it’s the distinctly untrustable air about him. 45% of Canadians find him “secretive” – this is his highest scoring attribute, just edging out “arrogant” and “out of touch.”

This being so, why does he continue to believe that the best way to implement policy is to do it outside the scrutiny of Parliament?

Two controversial decisions in the past two weeks – 1) an untendered purchase of $18 billion state-of-the art fighter jets which we never knew we needed, and then 2) the axeing of the long form of the national census.

It’s not just that the decisions were both bad – though they were – but it’s also the summertime, extra-parliamentary situation in which the government announced the decisions. It’s that unmistakable stench of sneakiness.

The census move was a clear and simple sop to his hard-core, anti-government, Reform Party base. And we can’t be surprised he’s going to appeal to them anytime he can, because he comes from that base. He isn’t a moderate trying to woo the right-wing fringe: it’s absolutely the reverse.

But wherever one sits on the debate as to whether a compulsory census is good or bad, there is a wider issue: that of accountable, consultative policy-making within earshot of critical Opposition parties. The government miscalculated in thinking that this is a risk-free time of year to reward the nutbar fringe without mainstream Canadians noticing. With it being summertime, and no Parliament in session, there must have been a logic in the Tory war room that Canadians in the centre and in the majority just “won’t notice” these decisions. Any mild controversy will die alone, while Canadians book flights and go camping. Why not procure billion-dollar stealth jets without any competitive bidding while we’re at it? Voters won’t notice or care.

But, as Team Harper does so often, this has been a real miscalculation and misreading of the public mood. Canadians are already fairly sensitive to the view that Harper will try to slip fast ones by us at any opportunity – proroguation set that image in stone. So now, any big, sudden policy shift, outside the scrutiny of a sitting Parliament, actually rings real alarm bells for Canadians.

The very fact that Harper prefers making big decisions quietly and out-of-view hardens Canadians’ view of the PM as a secretive, arrogant, and out-of-touch sort of guy. And to think he was only going for “ordinary.”

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , ,

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