It’s hard to tell, with any level of government, whether they are acting in the people’s best interests when information is kept secret from the public.
The current NAFTA talks are a good example. There is no doubt the result of the negotiations will affect everyone in Canada to some degree. Yet there has only been limited opportunities for civil society organizations to participate in the negotiation process.
OpenMedia and 10 other organizations are calling on the feds to at least release the more than 46,000 submissions received as part of the NAFTA public consultation.
At the core of their request is a question that can only be answered through governments being truly open and transparent. Is the government listening and using those consultation results to shape what Canadians want from NAFTA, or are they ignoring it? Is public consultation and engagement just a feel-good publicity ploy?
It’s a lesson Penticton city council should have learned from the disaster of the Skaha Lake Park, where secrecy led to the water slide development being foisted on the community with little time for consultation. Even then, public outcry was ignored, and the deal pushed through at the cost of two years of division and tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars before the city was forced to cancel it.
But we have to wonder if their greater use of community engagement is really changing anything in the decision-making process, or is it just to make the community feel good?
It’s too easy to take the results of any engagement and present them in a way that supports the position you want. For example, insisting on a commercial use in parks policy that goes against public sentiment by leaving open the possibility of large commercial projects.
Officials often say they won’t discuss something because they are not going to conduct negotiations in the media, or in the public. But for so many things, we have to ask why not?
Does the public not have a right to know, and influence, what choices governments are making for them?