Free Expression Report Card: 2015 Federal Election Edition

Tuesday, October 13, 2015
0 reactions


Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, Green Party leader Elizabeth May, New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair, and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper take part in the first leaders' debate on August 6, 2015 in Toronto. PHOTO: CP/Frank Gunn

Free expression is a crucial issue this election, but it is difficult to know where each party stands on topics that impact this critical right. So, with a mind to better informing Canadians, we’ve chosen six key aspects—(1) Public Right to Know, (2) Bill C-51, (3) Privacy Rights, (4) Muzzling of Scientists, (5) Whistleblower Protection, and (6) Charitable Audits—that must be addressed if Canada is to lift the veil of secrecy that has descended on government and restore accountability and trust to our democracy. The four major political parties have been graded on these six issues based on their platforms for the upcoming election, statements in the press and media, and policies that have recently been enacted or proposed. CJFE is a nonpartisan organization, and does not endorse any party. This document serves as a reference for Canadians to know where each party stands, at a glance, on these important free expression issues. Public Right to Know Bill C-51 Privacy Rights Whistleblower Protection Muzzling of Scientists Charitable Audits

PUBLIC RIGHT TO KNOW

Conservative Party of Canada: D- The Conservative Party has a weak record of protecting the public’s right to know. In 2006, they had a promising election platform that detailed reforms to the Access to Information Act, including ending blanket exemptions, obliging public officials to create the records necessary to document their actions and decisions, and expanding the scope of the Act to include Crown Corporations, officers of parliament, foundations, and functions. Only a handful of these policies, few of them substantive, were implemented in the 2006 Federal Accountability Act. The current government has also increasingly taken advantage of the access to information (ATI) system since these laws were passed, with massively delayed response times and drastic increases in censoring data. Most recently, in the 2015 spring budget (Bill C-59), the government exempted all records related to the long-gun registry from access to information requests, preventing the RCMP from being charged for allegedly illegally destroying registry records. Proposals for reforming the ATI system have been rejected by the federal government, including all of the 2009 recommendations from the Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

Green Party of Canada: A The Green’s platform says the party will “overhaul Accountability, Conflict of Interest, Privacy and Access to Information legislation,” but does not go into details. However, Green Party leader Elizabeth May has pledged to CJFE directly that her party will accept and implement all of the federal Information Commissioner’s March 2015 recommendations for access to information reform—a necessary component of improving open governance. In addition, their platform emphasizes strengthening and ensuring independence for government watchdogs, including the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Privacy and Information Commissioners, and the National Security Advisor.

Liberal Party of Canada: A The Liberals’ Real Change platform proposes reforms to the Access to Information Act that include making all government data open by default, eliminating most fees associated with making an ATI request, expanding the role of the Information Commissioner, and increasing the scope of the Act to include cabinet offices, which are troublingly exempt from the current law. This is a promising start, but the proposal does not endorse implementing all of Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault’s reform recommendations, and does not address the issue of overly broad exemptions that make it easy for the government to hide information from the public. Their transparency platform does have other encouraging policies, including increasing the power of Statistics Canada by making it a fully independent body, expanding open data initiatives, and restoring the long-form census.

New Democratic Party: A- While serving as the Official Opposition, the NDP proposed several bills geared toward increasing transparency in government. In January 2014, the NDP tabled Bill C-569 to amend the Access to Information Act. Some of the suggested reforms included enhancing the power of the Information Commissioner, expanding the Act’s scope, and ensuring that public officials keep better documentation of their decision making. Their ATI reform proposals do not, however, include accepting all of the Information Commissioner’s recommendations. In addition, while the NDP have been vocal about the importance of the long-form census and the need for its reinstatement, they have not proposed any legislation that would do so.

BILL C-51

Conservative Party of Canada: F In January 2015, the federal government tabled Bill C-51, which passed and received royal assent in June. Criticisms of the bill’s privacy and free expression violations have been extensively raised by legal experts, the media, and free expression organizations, as well as the public and opposition parties. The bill’s expansion of powers, such as the increased sharing of private information and increased ability to censor online posts, have drawn criticism from Canadians across the political spectrum, including those who support the Conservative party. But the government quickly pushed the bill through Parliament while rejecting amendments proposed by opposition parties and shutting out key witnesses such as the federal Privacy Commissioner, former prime ministers, and constitutional experts.

Green Party of Canada: A+ The Greens were the first party to come out strongly against Bill C-51. They introduced more than 60 amendments to the Bill, although they were all shut down by the government.

Liberal Party of Canada: D- The Liberal Party voted in favour of Bill C-51, but proposed a series of amendments that would have increased oversight and review of Canada’s national security agencies. While the amendments are admirable, they do not address some of the most serious issues within Bill C-51, including the increase in surveillance and online censorship that the bill allows. Even though the Liberals have promised to repeal some sections of Bill C-51, it is still deeply troubling that the party voted in favour of its passing while fully aware that it would unjustifiably threaten the civil liberties and rights of Canadians.

New Democratic Party: A The NDP have consistently taken a hard line against Bill C-51, though they did not immediately vow to vote against it when first tabled. Ultimately, they did vote against it in the House of Commons, and have promised to repeal the bill if they form government.

PRIVACY RIGHTS

Conservative Party of Canada: F While the spring budget did increase funding for the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC)—the independent agency that oversees and reviews CSIS—this only came after the government established SIRC as a replacement for the CSIS Inspector General’s office, which had more powers and full-time staff to probe complaints about CSIS. SIRC has yet to be given the necessary powers to adequately oversee CSIS, and it takes up to three years to review complaints. Although SIRC did receive increased funding, the Office of Communications Security Establishment Commissioner (CSE’s watchdog) did not. This has created a climate where Canadians have no guarantee that their spy agencies aren’t violating their privacy rights, and have no effective remedy when there is abuse of power. The government has also passed several other bills that threaten the privacy rights of Canadians, including Bill C-13, giving telecommunication companies immunity for handing over private data and information about internet users to police without a warrant and providing police with easier access to warrants to investigate the online activities of Canadians.

Green Party of Canada: B The Greens raised concerns and voted against Bill C-13 and Bill C-44, which increases the powers of CSIS to share information and operate internationally, as well as keep its sources anonymous. However, they have not laid out clear policies for addressing privacy issues in Canada.

Liberal Party of Canada: D+ The Liberal Party has frequently flip-flopped on recent privacy-related legislation. While initially opposing Bill C-13, arguing that it would strip Canadians of their right to privacy, they eventually voted in favour. The Liberals also voted for Bill C-44 while expressing concerns regarding a lack of oversight and a lack of resources provided to CSIS.

New Democratic Party: B- Over the last four years the NDP have championed the privacy rights of Canadians. When the government tabled Bill C-13, the NDP proposed splitting the bill into two segments, with one making the distribution of intimate images without consent illegal, and the other containing the lawful-access provisions that would potentially violate privacy rights. The NDP also opposed Bill C-44, arguing that the new powers provided to CSIS would negatively impact the rights of Canadians. However, they have not laid clear or strong policy proposals for privacy rights in this election.

UNMUZZLING SCIENTISTS

Conservative Party of Canada: F Since 2008, the current government has refused to allow federal scientists to speak to the media and the public about their research. Instead, scientists are required to direct all media inquiries to national headquarters and ministries, which often turn down requests. A 2013 report by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada found that 74 per cent of federal scientists believed that their ability to discuss their scientific research was too restrictive, and 71 per cent felt political interference was compromising Canada’s ability to develop policies and laws based on scientific evidence. Meanwhile, the federal government has rejected policy proposals from the opposition parties to make the science community more open and transparent.

Green Party of Canada: A+ Green Party leader Elizabeth May has long been outspoken against the muzzling of scientists, and in June 2015 introduced Bill C-699, Public Access to Science Act. It would make all publicly funded scientific research publicly accessible by law, requiring the records be released no later than six months after the research is concluded.

Liberal Party of Canada: A+ Liberal MPs have been some of the most outspoken politicians on the issue of muzzled scientists, having called for a more transparent communications policy since 2011. In their platform, the unmuzzling of scientists is listed as one of their highest priorities. The plans include revoking rules and regulations that currently prevent scientists from speaking about their work, creating an online portal that would make government-funded research easily assessable to the public, and creating a Chief Science Officer who is mandated to ensure that scientific research is freely available to the public.

New Democratic Party: B The NDP have made multiple proposals in an effort to curb the muzzling of scientists. In September 2013, they tabled a bill that would ensure communications officers, elected officials, and ministerial staff could no longer restrict public access to government scientists. However, the bill was ultimately rejected. Another bill in November 2013 proposed the creation of an independent science watchdog, but was also voted down by the government. The NDP’s current platform does not mention the issue.

WHISTLEBLOWER PROTECTION

Conservative Party of Canada: D- The federal government established the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Tribunal, which is intended to protect public whistleblowers from reprisal when reporting on wrongdoing. However the tribunal has been criticized for unfair and careless investigative work. In addition the government recently appointed to the tribunal a judge with strong connections to the Conservative Party, a clear conflict of interest that infringes on its independence.

Green Party of Canada: C+ The Greens have said they want to enact effective whistleblower protections for public and private employees, but have not laid out any policies on how they plan do so. The party doesn’t have a proven history of fighting for whistleblower protections.

Liberal Party of Canada: F The Liberal platform does not make any mention of a whistleblower policy, and we could not find any indication that the Party has addressed whistleblower protection in recent years.

New Democratic Party: A- While the NDP prioritized improving protection for government whistleblowers after becoming the Official Opposition in 2011, they have made little progress. An NDP private member’s bill, Bill C-505, was tabled in 2013 with the intention of expanding the limitation period for those claiming to be victims of reprisals from 60 days to 18 months It also would have expanded the powers of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner to question employees who have left the public service and to seize relevant documents. The bill did not make it past the first reading, but the NDP has pledged to create stronger protection for whistleblowers following the election.

CHARITABLE AUDITS

Conservative Party of Canada: F The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has been accused of targeted auditing of charities that have been outspoken against government environmental and pipeline policies. While the government has rejected any claims that the audits are targeted attacks, they have refused to support a bid to study the allegations. In 2012 the CRA was provided with $8 million, and an additional $5.4 million in 2014, to conduct audits on charities that were engaging in political advocacy. Despite this, since 2012 the federal government has been working to cut over $318 million annually from the CRA’s budget and remove more than 3,100 jobs by 2017-2018—increasing resources to charitable audits and decreasing resources from everything else.

Green Party of Canada: B- The Party’s Vision Green policy plan illustrates the auditing issues facing many charities in Canada and states that Green MPs would attempt to update laws relating to charitable NGOs so that they may participate in advocacy and political activities while retaining their charitable status. However, reforming the CRA is not inside the Green Party’s election platform, and their MPs haven’t been outspoken on the issue.

Liberal Party of Canada: A In a promise to reform the CRA, the Liberal platform states that they’ll end the political harassment of charities and make clear rules that illustrate the important role charities have in developing and advocating for public policy in Canada. The platform, however, does not go into detail as to how they would actually do so.

New Democratic Party: C+ In the past year, the NDP have twice called for an independent investigation into “allegations of intimidation and political interference” in connection with targeted audits of charities by the CRA. However, the NDP have so far not made any policy proposals related to reforming the CRA or ending the targeted audits of charities. *This document is based on information released up to September 15, 2015.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.