Can Canada Afford Democracy?

by Glen

Six months – even two months – ago, if pundits or politicians were asked, “If a scandal were to descend upon Ottawa, in which ministry do you think it would occur,” no one would have concluded CIDA or that its rather reclusive minister would be on the front page of every newspaper in the land. Ask any Canadian what the acronym “CIDA” itself stands for and you’ll merely get a shrug. Yet for all the anonymity, the swill surrounding the Canadian International Development Agency is threatening to peel back the layers of the present management of this country, revealing its threat to Canadian democracy.

While the issue around the funding of KAIROS seems to have suddenly descended on a troubled capital, it’s a story more than two years old. It was in 2009 that KAIROS officials revealed their funding might be in jeopardy. A normally sane relationship with CIDA officials suddenly seemed cross-wired, with bureaucratic officials seeming at odds with their political masters. MPs from all opposition parties spent the better part of a year attempting to pry out of the government why it was eventually cut, only to be stonewalled at every level. The Harper government determined that it just wasn’t going to be responsible to the parliamentary system and, frustrating as it was, the story died. All attempts at an open accountability faded, as is the way these days. That was until Embassy magazine, through an Access to Information request, located a document with the word “not” superimposed on it and all hell broke loose.

The KAIROS story, being that it involved a little known government agency and an even lesser-known development organization, is telling because it reveals just how far partisan intransigence goes when it’s tentacles can even reach an obscure government agency. We’ll never know for certain, but it’s likely that the Harper ideology, which resents what it feels is left-wing wrong-headedness, has bled into even the far corners of the bureaucracy – the PMO in “full-court press.” What we do know is that a growing number of the bureaucrats in all departments deeply resent their own researched conclusions being overturned. How can we be certain? Because they communicate their displeasure through back channels to media and MPs alike. That trickle of information has now become a brook and is likely to become a raging river if they continue to be undermined in their work. They have interests to protect just like everyone else, and at times their defensive protection puts them on the wrong side of an issue, but the infestation of all things political into the efficient running of federal departments is now a pandemic, crossing over the entire breadth of government.

This is the key issue surrounding the Oda story – the fulcrum upon which the rest is teetering. It’s about the very essence of Parliament itself and what it means to the future of Canada. When Stephen Harper rose in the House last week to defend his CIDA minister, claiming she did the right thing, what he meant was that he not only agreed with her decision but with the process by which it was reached. It was a mean-spirited fusillade, condescending, stubborn and perhaps contemptuous of Parliament itself, in which the ideological end justified the hyper-partisan means. It was easy in QP to see that he was perturbed that an issue he thought he had successfully put to bed months previous had now been resurrected through a pesky media and a prying opposition.

Parliament exists at the will of the people, but can only remain relevant and accountable through the attention of the people. It demands citizen diligence and holds the voting booth as that one place where those affected by policies, good or ill, can place any prime minister or MP in the docket of the public will. Canada has a rich and lengthy history of humanitarian intervention around the globe, but at present political meddling through overriding the parliamentary system itself is front page news. Are citizens concerned? Some are clearly angry, but likely not a critical mass. And so even though the media has done an admirable job at peeling back the onion on this story for us, and the Speaker of the House of Commons, along with vigilant MPs, are attempting to bring accountability into a secret society of decision-making, no public scrutiny or punishment appears imminent.

When modern society reaches the stage where state secrecy and perhaps contempt can continue unchecked by the citizen, then we have a democracy that can’t sustain itself because it’s ultimately the voter that makes the difference. Today it’s KAIROS, tomorrow it might be healthcare or financial accountability. Put simply: Canada can’t afford a democracy that eventually leads to secrecy and a social kind of censorship. Over the course of this week we’ll consider this matter in more detail, but for now the KAIROS incident should remind us that if the government can get away with it on this relatively minor file and department, then public accountability and attentiveness is hardly at the level required to keep a modern and open democracy functioning efficiently.