Thursday, October 14, 2010

What would accountable government look like, anyway..

         The Harper Conservative government won the last election on a platform of "law and order", "accountable government" and "transparency". Enough time has passed for us to make a judgement of their performance in meeting their own stated objectives.

          The results have - alas! - been, to say the least, disappointing. Take the issue of "accountable government". According to one on-line definition, the adjective "accountable" means:

"subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable"

        In general terms, authorities (parents, teachers, health professionals, ministers of religion, civil servants..) are under obligation to protect those they are held accountable for. This is often expressed in legal language with penalties attatching to those authorities failing to meet their stipulated obligations. Penalties, including fines, loss of office or renumeration, and prision may be applicable. Thus parents who do not provide adequately for their children are indictable under child protection legislation. Applying the same logic, a government which does not provide its citizens with adequate information concerning potential risks associated with industrial activities is morally indictable for breach of trust with its citizenry.

         An article appearing today, october 14, in The Globe and Mail raises the spectre of moral indictability on the part of the Harper government in its (mis-)management of the shale gas extraction file:

".. there is no requirement in Canada for companies to disclose what chemicals they use in fracturing – as there is in several (American) states."

           Now the hick is that several of the chemicals used in "fracking" operations to liberate natural gas from its mineral matrix are toxic and potentially capable of contaminating potable water aquifers. Why does our government not require gas extraction companies to divulge the chemicals they employ in their operations? If they do not establish such regualtory frameworks are they not showing a lack of accountability, one of the planks they ran on last election?

            In reality, the list of failures of accountability on the part of the government is quite shocking:

- lack of adequate Federal (or for that matter Provincial) regualtory frameworks for the rapidly emerging shale gas extraction industry

- lack of knowledge of adequate treatment / long term storage of the large quantities of contaminated water resulting from extraction

- the provinces estimate badly, if at all, the nature or extent of potential conflicts between various categories of water consumers: domicile, industry, agriculture, tourism, natural ecosystem services upon which we all depend.. 

      Do we have accountable government in Canada today?  

      In closing, I would merely like to underscore the overlap (?redundancy?) of the nature of "transparency" and "accountability" when applied to those holding high government office. A lack of transparency - failure to divulge information necessary for enlightened decision making on the part of the citizenry - is a precursor of failure to act accountably (responsibly). Transparency is not a question of governmental "style": it goes to the very heart of democracy itself. The people cannot decide intelligently unless and until they have all relevant fact before them. As democrats, we should hold this to be the sine qua non of responsible government in any democracy, ours included. Clearly, the Harper government, while talking the talk does not or cannot walk the walk.


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