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Richard Shimooka: The government’s lack of transparency benefits no one—not even them

Commentary

The following is drawn from testimony delivered by Richard Shimooka on February 14 to the Standing Committee on National Defence on the topic of transparency within the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces.

Thank you for letting me speak today to the committee on the topic of transparency within National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. It has relevance to me for a variety of reasons, but none so much as it deeply affects my ability to undertake research in defence policy and strategy in Canada. 

My focus is on chronicling contemporary defence and foreign policy, and the most significant tools I possess in doing so are the Access to Information Act system (ATI) and interviews with policymakers. I’m going to focus my discussion on how these areas have changed in the past twenty years and affected transparency. 

In Canada, I feel like this is a gap in our intellectual landscape, especially when you compare us to our allies like the United States and the United Kingdom. Those countries’ national security communities and civil societies value such research as an important function and it is comparatively much more vibrant than in Canada. 

Why is it important? The traditional and most immediate view is that this is an important form of independent accountability and oversight of government. Yet there are other benefits. One of the more significant failings of our system of governance is the lack of institutional knowledge. The history that guided a policy’s creation is frequently forgotten, even if it remains in place. Filling that gap can assist policymakers in crafting better policies in the future.

Finally, such research can benefit the government to better communicate policies to domestic and foreign audiences; even the best public affairs department or the most talented minister will be limited in their opportunity to explain these contextual factors, while analysis by outside researchers can be a critical information source to interested parties and may help advance policy goals.

Unfortunately, undertaking public policy research has become increasingly challenging over the past two decades. I started around 2003 when transparency and oversight were heavily influenced by the fallout of the Somalia Inquiry. It revealed systemic efforts by the department to obfuscate aspects of the crisis, which extended to ATI. The lack of transparency forced the department to reform how it operated for the next decade. 

Over the past twenty years, ATI has become an increasingly ineffective system to obtain useful information on a timely basis. In 2002, relatively straightforward ATI queries would generally provide a good return of documents. A set of ATIs I used to study the 1996 Intervention in Zaire provided over 2,000 documents with a very high level of complexity and included a large number of foreign confidences, advice, and sensitive information. The original request took about a year to be released and provided an in-depth view of what occurred during that operation.

This would be unheard of today.

The amount of pages of documents has decreased year on year, and officials frequently employ highly restrictive interpretations in an effort to suppress the disclosure of some documents—or even claim that no such records have been found. In other cases, requesters are advised that the scope of the request is too broad and forced to truncate their query. Finally requests frequently take years to be fulfilled, significantly diminishing ATI’s value as a research tool. 

Not all of the reasons for this situation are necessarily intentional. The ATI system today relies heavily on regular departmental staff to assess documentation for release—the same ones that are already overburdened with their day-to-day work. It is far from an ideal approach to handling ATI requests. 

Concurrent with the ATI system’s enfeeblement, there has been a consistent effort to curtail officials’ ability to discuss policies with interested parties. In the years after the Somalia inquiry, DND employed a fairly liberalized communication policy and access to officials was fairly good. One of the most helpful aspects was that the department made available subject matter experts to discuss specific areas. However, around 2005, the policy changed dramatically. Part of it was due to the belief that the War in Afghanistan required “message discipline,” but there was also a preference by the Harper government to centralize its communication strategy. Access to officials was curtailed and replaced by superficial media response lines from public affairs representatives.

Furthermore, the ability to maintain working relationships with officials has become increasingly strained. The most serious rupture occurred after 2015 when Admiral Mark Norman was charged with breach of trust, and members of the Future Fighter Capability project were forced to sign a gag order. These events had a serious chilling effect on the bureaucracy, as individuals felt fear of the potential consequences surrounding talking outside of government. While some of that fear has dissipated over time, there still remains a significant reluctance to speak with candour on major issues. 

So where are we today?

Overall, I believe the poor state of transparency in defence has largely been counterproductive for the government, resulting in the very outcome they wanted to avoid. Public understanding of the military is at an all-time low. This is in part due to the lack of open information available and the adversarial relationship that has developed between the government and outside bodies over access to information. 

Unfortunately, I do not have an easy solution to this problem. There is a deep-seated view that the current approach is the only way to successfully manage public relations. Seeing past the immediate situation and a radically different future is a tough sell to any government. I fear that it will require another Somalia-scale scandal to impel a government to shift its behaviour, which will benefit no party or the country as a whole.

Matt Spoke: Conservatives should end $10-per-day child care

Commentary

It’s been well over a year now since Trudeau’s child-care policy has taken effect in most provinces across the country. Naturally each province, through negotiations with the federal government, has approached its implementation of the program slightly differently.

The program promised three definitive outcomes: quality (a subjective measure, but one worth unpacking), accessibility (i.e. more spaces), and affordability (i.e. less expensive spaces).

Quality

To start with the most nuanced, let’s consider quality. In order to measure the quality of a program, one first needs to understand the policy objective that the program aims to accomplish. 

In reality, there are two quite different schools of thought when it comes to this area of policy. Simply put, you might call the first “child care” and the second “early childhood education.” In most of the country, these terms have become seemingly synonymous. In fact, we refer to licensed staff at child-care centres as “early childhood educators.”

So what’s the difference? Well, as the name implies, child care is for the purpose of having someone care for your child so that you might go to work. You might think of this similarly to hiring a babysitter while you’re out at night. A responsible adult needs to be present to ensure your child (or children) is safe. Put differently, the beneficiary of child care is not the child, but rather the parent.

Whereas early childhood education is for the purpose of educating our children. Decades of research support the idea that a strong foundation in early childhood education is one of the biggest determinants of future success. In this context, the beneficiary of early childhood education is clearly the child.

Although it’s plausible to combine child care with early childhood education, it’s important to clarify which outcome a set of policies intends to solve for. Are we designing a system to provide what amounts to institutionalised babysitting for parents, or are we designing a system that educates our kids and sets them up for long-term success?

Where does the Trudeau government’s plan land on this question? Has it designed a policy of child care or of early childhood education?

One doesn’t have to look much further than a regular media appearance of the prime minister or the finance minister to hear them cite the increase in women’s participation in the workforce as the primary measure of success of their child-care policy. The problem, as discussed above, is that this policy goal can be at odds with one focused on child outcomes. The experience from Quebec for instance certainly signals a tension here.

Accessibility

This measure of success is quite easy to measure. Have the number of available spaces at child-care centres increased or decreased as a percentage of the relevant population of children? A slightly more nuanced analysis would also consider the geographic distribution of those available spaces and whether they are in fact accessible to all socioeconomic groups equally. On the latter point, Rahim Mohamed covered this in a great piece last year for The Hub.

The more superficial measure of accessibility should be quite easy to measure, although any recent and relevant national statistics are lacking. So instead, we can look at recent anecdotal headlines to get a sense of where the sentiment of operators in the industry is on the question of accessibility.

CBC News in Toronto recently covered a 100-year-old child-care centre with 175 spaces announcing its closure, citing the provincial subsidy program as the primary cause. Similarly in Alberta, “rolling closures” of child-care centres are expected across the province. In Saskatchewan (as in other provinces), the province is falling well behind its commitments of opening sufficient new spaces. 

All in all, across the country the consistent story is that waitlists are increasing, staff shortages are getting more severe, and child-care centres are not able to make ends meet within the prescribed formulas of their respective provinces. 

On accessibility, it’s hard to argue for anything but a failing grade.

Affordability

This term is often significantly misunderstood. Whether in the context of groceries, housing, or child care, it’s important to think of affordability as a relative measure. Put differently, a $10 gallon of milk can be extremely unaffordable to a low-income family on a tight budget, but not make a real dent in the budget of an upper middle-class household. 

What’s perplexing about this policy is its emphasis on $10 per day as an arbitrary measure of affordability, rather than considering the means of the family benefiting from the program. 

Are there families paying less for child care today than before the program existed? Yes.

Are families with the greatest need disproportionately benefiting from the program? No, and in fact early data is suggesting the opposite: higher-income families are disproportionately benefiting from the subsidy.

Children’s backpacks and shoes are seen at a daycare in Langley, B.C. on May 29, 2018. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.

Anecdotally and statistically, we’re seeing evidence across the country of higher-income families (who historically have been able to afford market-rate child care within their budgets) get to the front of the line for access to the subsidy ahead of lower-income families who might not have put their children in child care historically.

Whether you agree with the designed intent of the policy or not, it’s hard to argue that the metric of affordability has been met. On the one hand, families who don’t need the subsidy (or at least not the full value of it) are benefiting more than they should, and on the other hand, many families who could benefit are still stuck on waitlists or can’t find child care that meets the unique demands of their schedules (e.g. nurses working night shifts, retail workers with unpredictable schedules, etc.).

On system-wide affordability, I give the program a failing grade. 

Conservatives need to scrap this program

I’ll leave the political calculus of this opinion to others, but I’ll highlight that Andrea Mrozek lays out a pretty compelling case that this issue is not as one-sided among Canadians as you might think.

Whether under the leadership of a Poilievre-led federal government or simply when it comes time for a renegotiation with the provinces, conservative leaders at both levels of government need to push back against this misguided policy that is showing early and worrying signs of failure.

Our objective as conservatives should be twofold: firstly, a policy that promotes parental choice and flexibility, and secondly, a policy that prioritizes the well-being and development of children within early childhood. 

Taken together, this would undoubtedly lead to a generous system of tax credits directed to families with young children (adjusted for income), coupled with regulatory reform agenda to open up a competitive industry of early childhood education options that’s ultimately ranked based on the quality of programming.

To conservative provincial ministers responsible for early childhood education, the challenge is yours to solve.