Issues

June 2011

Re: “Shooting the Messenger,” by Suanne Kelman

Openness in government is highly overrated. Bradley Manning and Julian Assange are not heroes. They are, according to Canadian law, criminals. Why would a journalism professor lionize criminals?

Suanne Kelman does not respect Parliament or our institutions. She looks at neither legislation nor the case law. In May 2011 the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed that there is not an unfettered right of access to information. In the Canada Evidence Act, the Security of Information Act, the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, the Privacy Act and the Access to Information Act, Parliament has placed restrictions on openness of government and, in several cases, made them criminal. And well they should. The Supreme Court, members of Parliament and senators clearly have a more sophisticated understanding of governing than does Kelman.

WikiLeaks may satisfy our desire for titillation and voyeurism. But it does not make us safer. Rather, as the Security of Information Act makes clear, it is a criminal offence to release publicly information that “impairs or threatens the capability of the Government of Canada to conduct diplomatic or consular relations, or conduct and manage international negotiations.” And well it should.

Moreover, the Access to Information Act makes it clear that there is a public interest in secrets being kept in the confidence of Cabinet. As the Supreme Court noted, access to information contributes to a democratic society. It went on, noting that “some information in the hands of those institutions is, however, entitled to protection in order to prevent the impairment of those very principles and promote good governance.” The court acknowledged “the need for a private space to allow for the full and frank discussion of issues.” It is, after all, the Queen’s Privy Council.

Kelman does not distinguish the leaking of secrets, the malfeasance that may be exposed by a whistleblower and the treatment of the leakers. One need not defend Christiane Ouimet, but one should look at her legislation and recognize that Parliament, in the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, was working to build confidence in public institutions. And it recognized the legitimacy of keeping secrets, of following procedure and of looking for the appropriate way of dealing with malfeasance before it is made public. Due to the Privacy Act, wrongdoers found through internal processes of government never get exposed. But they do get dealt with.

It is a good thing our rights and interests in good government are protected by Parliament and not by journalism professors. Perhaps, once a gossip columnist, always a gossip columnist.

Mel Cappe
School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario


Re: “Self-destructiveness and the State,” by Gregory P. Marchildon

We would like to make two points about Gregory Marchildon’s review of our book XXL: Obesity and the Limits of Shame.

He says that educational vouchers are a contentious issue in the United States, but evidence is mounting that they are contentious no more. That’s one of the reasons Barack Obama recently agreed to renew vouchers for low-income kids to attend private schools in Washington DC. High school graduation rates are higher for voucher recipients. When people are given the power to choose, good things start to happen.

Second, Marchildon writes that not enough is known about population-level health initiatives—notably, school-based prevention policies of the sort we critique—to confirm whether they will ever work to stop the spread of obesity and obesity-related chronic illness. Data are important in public policy. Consider banning vending machines or junk food. Unless we have strong confidence that a population-level health policy will work if implemented and strong confidence that the enforcers of that policy have the tools to implement the policy, we feel it is wrong to justify the implementation of that policy. Banning vending machines in schools, posting calories in restaurants, taxing soda pop heavily: all these interventions fail badly on all counts.

Healthy living vouchers, however, like educational vouchers, can be measured at the individual level. For example, do they enjoy sustained take-up? What are the vouchers being spent on? Are voucher users staying accountable to their primary care providers? Answering these questions gives us real, actionable data with which to predict and measure individual success. We recommend pilot projects, especially in poor income areas where there are fewer easy options for healthy living.

Yes, it will be expensive at first: we anticipate upwards of $1,900 per adult. Yet the increasingly shame-filled, population-health level approach—putting kids’ BMI scores on report cards, embracing graphic public service announcements—causes the overweight and obese to turn inward, pushing away treatment and avoiding the doctor. We are getting fatter and eating less healthfully while the government barks at us to lose weight and imposes top-down, aggressive population-health approaches with no data to support efficacy.

Neil Seeman and Patrick Luciani
Toronto, Ontario


Re: “Recapturing Past Glory,” by Jason Camlot

Nothing will ever replace the joy of a new book, or the opportunity to interact, unscripted, with authors who are capable of giving shape to our own ideas and concerns. Having built a successful English-language festival (ImagiNation) myself in the bastion of French culture in Canada, Quebec City, I can testify to the fact that people do want the opportunity to intermingle across cultures with literature as their social safety net.

Those few trying to find common ground between the “two solitudes” are often afraid to speak their mind for fear of being pigeonholed and vilified for choosing one nationalist slant over another. Fortunately, authors such as Linda Leith know that cooperation and collectivism can be woven into our society through literature and social interaction. She navigates expertly through the turbulent waters of nationalism with prose that concretizes the little known reality of a minority within a minority: English-language authors in Quebec.

This book describes how the political climate of the mid 1960s to the early 1980s influenced the literary world in Montreal from the perspective of a woman who has worn a number of literary hats. Leith’s detailing of the evolution of the Blue Metropolis Foundation, and its festival, reads like a really well-written textbook on negotiation tactics. Her story weaves intimate, personal details into a politically correct memoir that is worth reading.

Delia Fagundes
Quebec City, Quebec


Re: “Avoiding Extremes,” by Anthony Westell

Immediately after the election I took refuge in Bordeaux hoping to take on enough claret to see me through four years of majority Conservative government. I have thus not given the outcome the sober attention it deserves.

On leaving, though, it occurred to me that a reconfiguration of the Canadian party system that had been under way for some time had reached a more decisive stage. The Conservatives had become the most radical of political parties and the New Democrats the most conservative. That is to say, the Conservatives are without doubt the most discontented with the status quo, especially the institutions of the welfare state. By contrast the NDP has a new class foundation: it is no longer the party of the working class and farmers. It has become the party of the pensioners and public sector workers—and now another large group of state beneficiaries, disgruntled Quebecers—determined to keep entitlements and institutions just the way they are. The auto workers, and even the farmers, are voting Conservative. Temporarily we have a two-party system: a “cut spending and reduce the state” party versus a “borrow and spend” party. Preston Manning has triumphed: no one even dares think about raising the taxes needed to pay for the public services we want.

The Liberal Party made itself irrelevant, having structured itself mainly based on the Quebec issue. That matter having been more or less settled (the Liberals said no to Quebec nationalism by trans- forming Canada; it worked and they paid for it), now everyone has moved on—except the Liberal Party.

The Conservatives have managed to tap into the widespread unease about the economy, out-of-control healthcare costs and anxiety about the besieged and divided United States. The voters may not know what they want done, but they do want a stable government to manage things. And likely the Conservatives don’t know either except that they have their “market-based” mantras ready in the closet if needed. But I expect Stephen Harper, having captured the centre of Canadian politics, will prefer to settle in and muddle through (like a Mitchell Sharp Liberal) rather than revert to neo-conservative zealotry. Meanwhile, Jack Layton has become Réal Caouette, giving new meaning to the phrase Social Credit.

H.V. Nelles
Author of A Little History of Canada
Toronto, Ontario


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