Thursday, December 18, 2014

Robocall scandal: Sona hung out to dry?

abbreviations used in this article:

FOI - Freedom of Information (Act)

            Years ago, when the Harper Conservatives were running against the scandal smirched Liberals they promised a bouquet of "responsible government", "transparency" and "law and order". A Great Conservative grab bag. Actually, if you ignore the vagueness it sounds pretty good! Who - aside from the Black Block anarchists - really does oppose "responsible government, transparency and law 'n order??

            Once in power though, Canada experienced government that hardly meets these criteria, no matter how "liberal" one tries to be in judging.

            One problem that seems to keep cropping up sporadically is obtaining information from the government under the freedom of information law. Delays are often in excess of those required in the legislation, sometimes egregiously so, which suggests that political interference is taking place hot button issues. Too much of what is finally received by the requestee is "heavily redacted" (blacked out). All of which makes a farce of the law. "Justice delayed is justice denied." True, but information delayed is also information denied: a delay may effectively kill a journalist's or a lawyer's hunt for facts.

            Freedom of information (FOI) legislation is laudable of course. One can even make an argument that information is the lifeblood of a living democracy. How are citizens - or the representatives they elect - to judge wisely if they do not have the facts set before them in an objective unbiased way? (Such an argument represents an idealization, of course, but it should be seen as a target to aim for in order to improve our daily performance, to provide a standard against which real-world behaviors are to be judged.) There is increasing evidence, for example, that political interference is taking place in the application of FOI due, in part, to fearful atmosphere cultivated in the civil service. Job cuts, top-down micro-management from the prime minister's office and internal censorship have created a poisoned atmosphere in federal service ranks.

          Recently Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault

.. made a pointed reference to the responsibility of ministers and top bureaucrats to make sure the access to information system is protected. She said that a culture of "pleasing the minister's office" had been fostered among public servants."

          As journalists covering the house of commons have observed, the Harper Conservatives have inculcated an authoritarian, top-down mode of governance: Harper himself is derided as a "control freak" especially with respect to media access to controversial files (climate change, for example). Witness the pathetic attempts to muzzle climate scientists who produce results unfavorable to the fossil fuel industry.

internal blog links:

             The desire to control - suppress, modify, interpret - information flows seems omnipresent in this Conservative government. Thus while FOI legislation does not require background information from requestees, the Harper government has been doing so. Why? Moreover, they have continued to do so, despite having promised to stop the offending practice. Is this what the Harperites mean by "transparency"?

"The access law does not authorize the collection of background information from individual requesters, and a government-wide directive from 2010 requires institutions to process requests without regard to the identity of the person seeking records."

              While, strictly speaking, not illegal, federal information commissioner Legault, signaled another problematic practice: the monitoring / surveillance of FOI requests in sensitive areas (especially requests emanating from opposition parties or the press).

The Conservative government has been criticized in the past for flagging some sensitive requests — typically from the news media or opposition MPs — for special scrutiny in ministers' offices, delaying release or even improperly censoring material."

              "Flagging" potentially explosive FOI requests for pre-scrutiny by federal ministers amounts, effectively, to the censorship one expects in those "Communist states", like China, that the Harperites so love to excoriate! Shades of Orwell' "1984".

                 Another classical way of killing embarrassing information and questions is simply to cut off funding. This, too, is an established practice of the "transparency-loving" Harper government.

The Michael Sona saga


                Other forms of authoritarian behaviors are evident on the part of the Harper government. One particularly egregious tactic: telephoning voters who are supporters of other political parties on election day, telling them that their voting station has been changed and they must go elsewhere to vote. When the voter gets to the alternative polling station they find they are not registered to vote there and, if they do not have the time or inclination to go to their legal voting station, they lose their vote. Dirty political tricks, of course, are older than the ancient Athenians. Liberals, for example, have not been above stooping to the tactic of voter diversion on occasion in recent elections. Traditional Québec elections, in particular, were noted for multiple voting, fraudulent voting (the dead voted..), ballot box stuffing, ballot box theft and destruction, goon squads to enforce politically correct voting and marked ballots (so if you were someone important, the pols would know who you voted for).. But those were the "good old days" and we were supposed to be beyond all that..

               In the last federal election, the Harperites apparently employed an updated form of voter diversion using robo-calls from automated call centers. This came to a head in the notorious Sona affair in which a young Conservative party worker, Michael Sona, was indicted, then convicted, of voter interference. Sona, the first person to be actually convicted of voter interference, was sentenced to 9 months prison and a year of probation. The judge felt Sona did not act alone in the diversion of 6,700 voters although Sona himself still proclaims innocence. Given that Sona did not act alone, why were others not indicted? Was it a simple lack of evidence? (And, if so, why the lack?) Was there political influence in the police investigation? Was Sona - who was in his early 20s during the robo-calls escapade and rather naive - hung out to dry, a convenient and powerless scapegoat who could be sacrificed at little cost? (The above photo gives an indication of Sona's age and maturity at the time of the infractions, May, 2011.) 

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