Jack Knox: It’s time we had a little talk, Ottawa

Jack Knox, Times Colonist

It might be 3,583 kilometres from Victoria to Ottawa, but the return trip is 45,285. And apparently they don’t have a phone.

How else to explain the lack of communication on a whole bunch of stuff affecting those of us way down in the lower left-hand corner of Canada?

This week it was the news that the federal government has lifted its moratorium and is once again entertaining fish farm applications for much of the B.C. coast. They actually let the industry know about it last October, but the public only became informed after letters were sent to First Nations this month.

We’re only gradually learning the details about the closing of Canada’s science libraries (the draining of the national knowledge pool), including those at Victoria’s Pacific Forestry Centre and Nanaimo’s Pacific Biological Station last year.

It was a week before Christmas (when all the media were starting their shopping) that it was quietly announced that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans had surrendered to the National Energy Board its authority to decide whether pipelines harm fish habitat.

Similarly, it was 12 hours after Parliament had recessed for the holidays that Canada Post, a Crown corporation, dropped the bombshell that Canada would be the first country in the developed world to abandon urban home mail delivery. Echoes of the HST: It would have been nice to have been consulted first.

People who have something to say about the Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal (the one that would send 25 oil tankers a month past Victoria’s front door) might be surprised to learn that their ability to weigh in has been severely restricted.

It won’t be like the Northern Gateway hearings, which included a Victoria stop at which 253 presenters in a row spent eight days telling the review panel why they thought the idea stunk. The Conservatives have decided they don’t want the Kinder Morgan process to be bogged down in the same way (though what some see as “bogged down” others might call “democracy”) so will only listen to those deemed to have expertise or who would be directly affected by the pipeline.

Ottawa has also fast-tracked the Kinder Morgan process. A full-page ad in the Jan. 16 Times Colonist gave instruction on how to apply to participate in the NEB hearing: Applications will only be accepted until Feb. 12. Critics say the tight deadline is an attempt to muzzle the public.

It would be nice to ask the feds about all this, but waiting for answers from Ottawa these days is like leaving the porch light on for Jimmy Hoffa. Even on the rare occasions when the prime minister comes to Vancouver Island, as he did last week, there’s no chance for enlightenment. His appearances are strictly controlled photo ops, with no questions from reporters allowed.

This is not how Ottawa is supposed to work. It’s not how Murray Rankin thought it would work when, back in the Mulroney era of the 1980s, he was an adviser to a House of Commons committee whose blueprint for open government won support from all parties. He figured information would flow so freely that people wouldn’t even have to bother filing Access to Information requests.

“Boy, was I wrong,” he said Friday.

Rankin, elected Victoria MP in a October 2012 byelection, found a culture in which information is jealously controlled, nothing released without being run through a political filter. The pit bulls in the prime minister’s office run the show. “They’re even telling cabinet ministers what to do.”

Rankin has a story of a journalist who wanted some straightforward scientific data on snow, nothing political at all. He got what he needed with a call to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The same request to Ottawa earned a long silence, then political bafflegab. That’s typical.

This isn’t about fish, or whether a pipeline is good or bad, or whether we should have door-to-door mail delivery. It’s about transparency, about politicians being honest about what they’re doing and keeping their bosses — us — in the loop.

“Government by stealth is something we should be concerned about,” Rankin says. “This is our government. We pay forit.”                                                        © Copyright Times Colonist

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