Right Hon. John N. Turner (Leader of the Opposition) moved:
That, in the opinion of this House, the guidelines issued by the Prime Minister on November 23, 1984, with regard to the provision of information to the public, are inadequate and retrogressive and confirm the Government's mistrust of and cynicism toward Canadians.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I would like to say that I almost did not get to the House this morning because of the fog. The trip from Vancouver Quadra was a little longer than I had expected. Mind you, this fog has been descending over the capital ever since the Prime Minister (Mr. Mulroney) announced his guidelines on Friday.
I rise today, Your Honour, on a very serious issue which goes right to the heart of this institution of Parliament and to the good workings of democracy itself; the right of every Canadian to complete information on the policies, plans and projects of the Government. Openness in government, Sir, is absolutely vital and fundamental to parliamentary democracy. It reinforces the confidence of Canadians in the way our system works and it promotes sound and intelligent debate among the citizenry of our country.
The Prime Minister, at his press conference on Friday, introduced guidelines for public servants as to how they must deal with members of the press, the news media and the public, indeed as to how they must deal with Hon. Members of this House. He indicated a willingness to table these guidelines in the House when I questioned him last week, but as yet I do not believe he has done so.
Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister's guidelines are important because they affect the right of all Members to be informed about Government policy in order to serve their constituents, and also the right of Canadians to have this information. However, the guidelines will not give us the open and accessible government we were promised. Far from it!
The effect of these guidelines, Mr. Speaker, will be an even tighter control on information. The Prime Minister made a solemn pledge during the campaign which I recited during Question Period a week ago and which is found in Hansard of November 20, 1984, at page 404. These are his words:
Secrecy in government... is an addiction; the more the Government can have of it, the more it wants of it.
The Prime Minister also said: "The first benefit of the first day of a new government will be the knowledge that the public business will be once more in the hands of those who trust the people and seek their goodwill and trust in reform". Those were his words. Like the economic commitments the Prime Minister made to the Canadian people, this commitment for openness in government has already been broken. First, the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Nielsen) gagged all the Ministers. They could not talk. As I said on Leaders' day during the debate on the Throne Speech, they would be fired unless they "checked with Erik". The Secretary of State for External Affairs (Mr. Clark) then gagged his Department, gagged Canada's ambassadors and gagged our trade representatives around the world. The Secretary of State for External Affairs was particularly concerned that someone might learn something at a cocktail party.
Senior officials were hesitant to go to conferences to discuss nuclear disarmament, because they were afraid their Minister would insist on controlling whatever they said. The Minister of Finance (Mr. Wilson) even refused to give us information regarding the effects of severe cutbacks on the employment situation.
So we asked the questions in the House of Commons. We pressed the issue and forced the Prime Minister to go before the national press gallery with the guidelines. The result was that he finally came up with some rules and regulations, but instead of being the road to open government we expected they are nothing more than a forced march down the dead-end street of government secrecy. Yes, the Prime Minister lifted the gag order all right, but he replaced it with a straight-jacket on all our public servants and the complete government apparatus in Canada.
Background briefings are no longer in order. We are told in the guidelines they will only be permitted in exceptional circumstances and must have prior ministerial approval. These guidelines raise more questions than they answer. We know
November 27, 1984
this Government puts a high priority on managing the news, but what constitutes an off-the-record, background briefing? If a member of the news media, for example, asks a public servant for information on a previous policy announcement which may not be consistent with current policy, will he have to check first with the Minister before giving out that information? Does it mean that every time a policy is changed all previous policy announcements must be deep-sixed? Is every statement in support of government policy a fact and every critical statement an off-the-record briefing?
The Prime Minister's letter accompanying the guidelines says that Ministers must, and I use his words, "ensure that communication with the public is managed effectively in accordance with the priorities of the Government". The key word in the statement is "managed". What about the public interest and the public right to know? Are public servants going to be punished for talking about subjects affecting the public interest which are not necessarily priorities of the Tory Government? If a member of the public wants to know why a particular policy option was chosen over another, does the public servant in question have to check with his Minister to give that information?
What is at issue here, Mr. Speaker, is that it is one thing to allow facts to be confirmed or revealed by public servants within an umbrella of government policy, but what is important for public debate and public scrutiny is that members of this House, the media and the people of Canada know the options in front of the Government. Why was one choice made rather than another? What were the reasons and facts and policies behind that choice? What were the choices that were disregarded and refused? In other words, by limiting, in the guidelines, public servants to the mere relevation of facts within a very tight stricture and under a very strictly controlled parameter, the Prime Minister is, in effect, controlling the ability of this country to debate options, choices and to understand the reasons why the Government made a decision. That is absolutely true.
Subtopic: BUSINESS OF SUPPLY
Sub-subtopic: ALLOTTED DAY, S O. 62-NO-CONFIDENCE MOTION-INFORMATION GUIDELINES