COMMENT: What government work should be done behind closed doors and what should be done openly?
What are we to do with, to, or about our Senate? Was it meant to be a chamber of sober second thought or a retirement home for political hamsters? Recent revelations about senators cashing in on the strength of what may, at best, be considered sloppy financial administration, have renewed calls to reform the Senate or to simply abolish it. I do not believe that the problem lies with the idea of a second legislative Senate. The problem, as I see it, is much broader and it lies with our governing institutions at the federal as well as at the provincial level.
Our federal and provincial governments have expanded the application of confidentiality – secrecy – beyond what is reasonable and justifiable in a democracy. A recent example is the March 25, 2013, meeting of the House of Common’s Board of Internal Economy. This Board has seven members: four Conservatives, two New Democrats (including Nathan Cullen, my MP), and one Liberal. The agenda dealt with issues pertinent to compensation for Members of Parliament. The Board approved a 1.6 percent increase in sessional allowances and salaries as of April 1, 2013, and a 6 percent increase for travel status expense accounts. The Board’s decisions were made public, eventually, but its deliberations transpired behind closed doors.
I learned about the Board’s decision from a CBC news report on Jun 14, 2013. I immediately sent an e-mail to Nathan Cullen asking him to let me know how he had voted on the issues, and to provide a rationale for his voting decisions. By June 22, 2013, my e-mail had not yet been acknowledged, so I followed up with a letter via Canada Post to his Terrace constituency office. In that letter I repeated my two questions, asking further for an explanation as to why such deliberations are made behind closed doors. This letter too remains unanswered.
Confidentiality is justified when the subjects under discussion concern matters such as national security or a competitive bidding process. But what aspect of the rules governing “Members’ Sessional Allowances and Additional Salaries” and “Travel Status Expenses Account” (to use their formal labels) justifies secret deliberations and voting?
Municipal bylaws governing compensation and expense entitlements for mayors and councillors are debated and voted on in open meetings. Why can’t discussions and votes on compensation and expense entitlements for parliamentarians proceed in the open? Making decisions, in an open meeting, on how much citizens should pay you to represent their views is not comfortable, but openness in such matters is essential to democratic accountability.
When deliberations on the subject of compensation and expenses at that level are treated as matters to be kept out of the public realm, a nonchalant attitude to these matters by some Senators should not come as a surprise.
The Board of Internal Economy may occasionally need to deal with matters behind closed doors, but parliamentarians’ salaries and expenses are not among them. A political party committed to raise parliamentarians’ accountability to a new level would call on the Board of Internal Economy to open its deliberations to the public.
Far too often “If elected we will …” promises end up in the recycle bin after an election. The citizens’ cynicism about politics has its roots in such broken promises. A promise to pursue greater accountability would gain credence if a party represented on the Board were to refuse to participate in its deliberations unless they are opened to the public. A public declaration of the kind would challenge the governments’ obsession with secrecy and, if declared by a party to be a basic democratic principle, the issue could become an influential election issue.
This is what I would have suggested to Nathan Cullen if he had bothered to answer my e-mail or my letter.
Andre Carrel is a retired City Administrator, journalist, author, and full-time grandpal.