Consultation without Communication

The Ford Government, as reported in the Toronto Star, is going ahead with its plan to require gasoline stations to post stickers denouncing the federal government’s carbon price by the end of August.

As I discussed in my post on June 19, the Ford Government gave citizens until July 9 to comment on that initiative. I asked public servants in Energy, Northern Development, and Mines – the ministry overseeing the sticker campaign – whether the results of the consultation would be made public. The answer was no. I asked further whether not making the results of regulatory consultations was a departure by the Ford Government from the practice of previous governments, and the answer was again no.

Let’s consider this for a moment. Governments, through their websites, have a convenient method for public consultation, funded by tax dollars. Doesn’t the public have a right to know the results of public consultations that it paid for? More specifically, doesn’t a government “of the people” have an obligation to release information it has collected about what “the people” are thinking to “the people”?

I can think of two arguments against government releasing the results of consultations. Many regulatory consultations, for instance those regarding industry production processes, are of little interest to the general public and the industry and government actors are well aware of each other’s positions. A broader argument would go back to Edmund Burke’s notion of representative democracy as embodied in his famous declaration that “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Perhaps it is easier for politicians to follow Burke’s adage if there isn’t information out there about what the public are thinking. But the true test of a representative is if she votes on the basis of her judgment despite the public knowing the nature of their opinions.

In many instances the media have used Freedom of Information requests to force governments to reveal the results of their surveys. The gas pump sticker initiative is an important public policy issue and I hope that the media will make the appropriate Freedom of Information requests.

My expectation is that the consultation, despite being conducted with a very low profile, revealed that the stickers are very unpopular. So, please, bring on the stickers. And the legal challenges and the counter-stickers. Let’s see what happens when the Ford Government tries to enforce a stupid law.

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