“Oil and democracy do not easily mix,” wrote political scientist Michael Ross in The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations, his 2012 study of the impact that income from oil development has on governments around the world.
Regular readers will recall this idea from an earlier post.
Countries that are rich in petroleum generally have lower economic growth and less democracy that countries that don’t have oil revenues. Ross puts this down, in part, to a relationship that citizens see between government revenue and government spending.
Citizens in oil-producing countries, though, cannot directly observe how much their government collects in oil revenues. They must rely on the government and the media for their information. If they live in a democracy, the information is probably available.
That assumes, of course, that the media in those democracies can find out the information and publish it.
“The Newfoundland one, or the proposed cabinet exception, really takes it to another level,” Mendel said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen one as broad as that. It really throws in the kitchen sink.”
According to Mendel, the amendments will allow cabinet ministers to keep practically anything they want secret.
The changes to the law governing public access to government information is part of a pattern of developments over the past decade that have eroded public oversight of government activity.
Ross draws a connection between public misinformation public support for oil-rich governments. “In short, rulers in general…remain in power when their citizens believe that their governments are delivering a lot of benefits relative to their revenues.” Ross is talking primarily about creating a false perception by concealing revenues. He mentions the belief among some citizens that governments produce economic miracles, doing lots with apparently very little.
Well, what he is talking about is not far off spreading misinformation about government spending as well. The current administration’s fondness for misleading statements about the public debt is a case in point. Lots of people in the province mistakenly believe that the provincial government is in better financial shape today – largely through a lower public debt – than it was in 2003. Most don’t know that the provincial government has cash reserves totalling billions, most of which has already been ear-marked to build a large hydro-electric in Labrador.
These are misunderstandings.
What the debate on Bill 29 has shown, surprisingly, is that some cabinet ministers have profound misconceptions about their jobs and the relationship between the government and the legislature. As educator Robert Talbert has noted:
A misunderstanding can be cleared up in a single clarifying question or targeted piece of feedback. Clearing up a misconception requires undoing potentially years of layer upon layer of misconceived ideas.
To get a sense of the ministerial misconceptions, consider some comments municipal affairs minister Kevin O’Brien made on June 12:
Access is not a total, absolute thing. What I am hearing from the hon. members, and especially the hon. Member for St. John's Centre, is that they want total access to everything and anything pertaining to the everyday running of a government. I will say this before I will go any
further on that, Mr. Chair: in democracy that cannot work. We, as a government, or no government in a democratic world would be able to do business on a daily basis, carry out the work that needs to happen within government on behalf of individuals.
Of course, anyone familiar with parliaments like those in Canada knows that members of the legislatures across the country have an right of unfettered access to government information. This issue turned up most recently in a dispute in the House of Commons in which the government attempted to withhold sections of documents related to Afghan detainees.
Fairity O’Brien couldn’t have been more wrong. Our democracy can only work when members of the legislature have complete access to government information. As much as O’Brien talked during Wednesday night’s debate about his knowledge of how cabinet works, he evidently missed a lot.
You can see the same thing in comments by health minister Susan Sullivan:
What this really comes down to for the member opposite is that he would like someone to do his work for him, Mr. Chair. He would simply like to be able to say to us, give me all your briefing books. That will be good for me.
Other Conservatives - Darin “Finute” King, for example - have said the same thing. “It simply provides an opportunity for them not to jump on the backs of ministers and our staff, and take the work that we have done and use it for their own benefit.”
Perhaps unwittingly, the provincial Conservatives make their intentions plain: they want to cut off access for members of the legislature to information about what the provincial government is doing. They want to violate the basic rights of members of the legislature. They want to limit what reporters and others can find out.
And by extension, the Conservatives intend to violate centuries of parliamentary tradition that form part of the foundation of our democracy.
That may not have been the Conservatives’ intention. In fact, given the anger evident among Conservatives on Wednesday night they seem to be genuinely surprised that people are rejecting their arguments so forcefully. The CBC story has particularly incensed them. They don’t like opinions of their actions that don’t fit their own self-delusions. Their own rationalisations sounded wonderful when they talked among themselves but the Conservatives do not seem to understand that the rest of the world may view things differently.
All that to one side, there’s no doubt that the Conservatives’ changes to the access to information laws undermine the public’s right to know what government is doing.
And as Darin King, Susan Sullivan, Kevin O’Brien and their colleagues admit, that’s their intention.