Politicians fear ugly debate on privacy
There is an old and venerable principle of parliamentary government which dictates that decisions are made at the political level and then implemented by the public service.
A few weeks ago, it was put to the test as every party in Parliament attacked Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand for declaring that women with veils don’t have to remove them when they vote. They accused him of reinterpreting the law and defying the will of Parliament.
This rare display of political unanimity was not grounded in reasoned arguments, democratic or otherwise. Rather, a sea change seems to be under way in public attitudes around multiculturalism.
Mayrand’s announcement simply gave the politicians an opportunity to show they were onside with public opinion, and they leaped on it.
But in the end they were hoisted by their own petard. The commissioner stood firm, noting that the law does not require voters to show their face. If it did, travelers could hardly vote by mail.
Mayrand also underlined that his job is not to make the law, but to apply and uphold it. If the politicians want to change the law, he said bluntly, they should do so.
And he reminded them that some months before, in a Senate meeting, he had actually advised them that the proposed law would not require removal of the veil – and that they had done nothing to change it.
So, if there is a failure to respect the principle governing traditional roles here, it is not because a bureaucrat waded into political territory, but because the politicians failed to act when they should have. To be frank, they were scared stiff that a public debate on such an issue might get ugly.
This kind of poll-driven leadership is not only crass and unbecoming, it can be damaging to parliamentary government. Given the division of responsibilities between politicians and bureaucrats, such debates are often critical to the well-working of the system as a whole.
When that is the case, it is up to the politicians to step up to the plate and provide the leadership – whatever the opinion polls are saying. If they don’t, the bureaucracy starts tying itself in knots.
That is just what is happening around another, related issue: the national identity card or registry. Politicians fear a serious debate around privacy and information sharing.
They know the public is suspicious of government and they are afraid they will be branded as the agents of an over-intrusive, Big Brother state.
Nevertheless, this discussion is long overdue. An integrated electronic identity is as essential to the 21st century as licence plates were to the 20th. If we had such a card today there would be no debate over whether veils should be removed when voting, whether photo-ID should be required, or whether someone should be allowed to vouch for someone else’s identity.
These issues belong to a low-tech society. We now have all kinds of technologies that would lay them to rest, such as biometrics. Had we used one, the whole messy discussion around veils would never have happened.
Moreover, the need for a national identity card or registry goes far beyond voting or even security issues. It is the lynchpin of a new generation of public infrastructure. Our governments have invested billions in information technology. In return, they have promised to make public services far more efficient and to save money.
So far, the results have been disappointing. Far from being integrated, public services remain fragmented. A key problem lies in practices around privacy and information sharing that are a century old. Bureaucrats struggle just to patch together a few programs or services from different departments and governments.
They need new rules that allow them to link and use information in new ways. But to get that, we need a public discussion of the issues. That is the responsibility of the politicians. So where are they?
While Canadians are certainly wary of any sign that governments want to control their freedom by controlling information, they also know we are living in a new world where information and information technology are the drivers of change and the tools of growth, innovation and prosperity.
It is entirely possible to have a reasoned discussion with them about the need to revisit the values and practices of the past to make way for the future. The longer we wait, the higher the price we will pay.
The politicians should look a little deeper into their souls. As the debate over the election law shows, this price is not just economic, but social and cultural. It is already tearing at the social fabric of the country.
Don Lenihan is provincial advisor on public engagement to the Government of New Brunswick. Engage with him directly at email@example.com