2015 Public vs. 2008 non-Public Caretaker Government documents – a comparison

As you might know, since 2011 I have been calling (motivated by the work of scholars and other experts) on the government to make public the guidelines for the behaviour of the caretaker government, during periods when Parliament is dissolved and cannot hold the government to account. I am pleased that the government has done so, an action which fulfills my motion M-286 which I tabled in the House in Otober 2011.

Concurrent with the August 2 election call, a new version of the guidelines has been released. Here is a link to the older non-public 2008 document.

What has changed, and what difference has making the document public made?

I have compared the two documents line by line and here is what I find:

  1. Having a public document allows all of us to know what instructions ministers, ministers of state, political staffers, and public servants have been given, and what guidelines might be consulted in ambiguous cases. In fact it is more than just an abstract notion of transparency and openness, it is advantageous for the government to do so, and I will get back to this point shortly.
  2. The writing has been tightened up and more carefully edited. This makes the document clearer and more concise for the reader, and also more valuable for anybody who has to consult the guidelines in order make a decision. There are simple updates, such as “ministers of state” instead of “secretaries of state”. There are lines like “in the absence of any of the exceptions enumerated above” which clarify the logical flow of the document, and other new lines which, for example,  recommend the delegation of decisions on routine contracts and grants to departmental officials.
  3. A clarifying paragraph has been inserted which explicitly uses “treaty negotiations” as an example.  If you read this paragraph I think you might conclude that the government wants to cover the case of engaging in TPP trade negotiations, which are at the point where ministers from the negotiating countries attend and make final decisions:

    For greater clarity, there may be compelling reasons for continued participation by Ministers and/or officials in specific activities such as treaty negotiations. For example, when negotiations are at a critical juncture with timelines beyond Canada’s control, the failure to participate in ongoing negotiations during the caretaker period could negatively impact Canada’s interests. Under such conditions, a compelling case may be made for ongoing efforts to protect Canada’s interests. Irreversible steps such as ratification should be avoided during this caretaker period.

  4. Indeed, I would say that the publication of this updated Caretaker Convention has the benefit of framing the ministers participation in the TPP negotiations, clarifying that for voters and, while preventing the government from making final commitments such as the ratification of the treaty, will at least allow the minister to participate to the extent of preventing any negative impacts of dropping out of these international discussions. This is what I was getting at in #1. For a historic example, the reader may wish to read about the 1993 decision by Prime Minister Kim Campbell to sign agreements related to Pearson Airport during the 1993 election campaign.
  5. Communications technology has changed and the government’s involvement in communications and media monitoring has certainly expanded since 2008. Thus it is not surprising that many new lines appear in the section on Departmental Support, Communications and Advertising. For example, “preparation of communications material [used for partisan purposes]” is now explicitly mentioned. Social media is mentioned. The interaction between (what is now, I expect, automated) media monitoring and minister’s campaign activities is mentioned insofar as government media monitoring should not inadvertently (many more opportunities with today’s explosion of media channels) help publicize the minister’s campaign activities.
  6. One noteworthy line was inserted in the new document, one that would apply to Minister Pierre Poilievre’s controversial child care benefits events, as documented in the press.

     as always, communications and public announcements that are prepared using government resources must not contain partisan information or identifiers

     

All in all, I think the document has been improved with a public update and will serve us well. Perhaps it is a good example of what transparency and openness can do. I hope that in the future, public input will be used to update and improve these guidelines.

 

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