David Pugliese, yet again, writing in the National Post, says that “Defence department officials tried to blame a clerk for failing to challenge the military’s top legal officials who had claimed a report requested under the Access to Information law didn’t exist even though it did … [now, blaming some poor clerk is one of the oldest excuses in the bureaucrats’ book, but he adds] … The department’s decision to assign blame to the unidentified clerk came even though Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jon Vance and police investigators were in possession of documents clearly showing senior Judge Advocate General staff discussed withholding the records and acknowledging what was being done was illegal. Postmedia revealed last week the July 2017 attempt to stymie the request made under the Access to Information law for the document, a report highlighting problems with the court martial system.“
Now, to be very clear, I believe that General Vance, Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, was honestly and very properly outraged when he discovered that some “defence officials [were] intentionally trying to subvert the federal access to information system by avoiding the use of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman’s name in internal correspondence.” I doubt that he was, in any way, involved in any attempt to break the law or circumvent the rules or to deny Vice Admiral Norman a fair trial. But I also believe that officials and officers, some of whom answer to General Vance, were complicit in all those things. I remain convinced that there is a toxic culture in National Defence Headquarters and, indeed, in many other government departments, which leads officials (and military officers, too) to think that appeasing the minister and his political staff is more important than doing one’s sworn duty to the country. I, personally, saw this in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s … under both Conservative and Liberal governments.
But I do not believe, not for a µsecond, that some junior (or even very senior) clerk was to blame … not unless “clerks” now include military officers in the ranks above major and officials with occupation codes like AS-7 or PM-7, i.e. people who make a six figure annual salary.
Mr Pugliese says that “Department insiders,” and he is well connected inside DND, “tell Postmedia the access to information process at the DND is a mess, with documents being withheld with no justification and excessive delays in producing requested material. They attribute that to the belief among senior managers there are few consequences to violating the law.” Twenty-five years ago, when I was a Director of a small staff group in National Defence Headquarters, Access to Information requests were, as I have said before, a pain in the you-know-where, but I, and my colleagues knew they had to be actioned properly and expeditiously, even if we found them difficult and vexatious … perhaps things have changed more than I imagine.
But, good story teller that he is, David Pugliese concludes with some comic relief: “Byrne Furlong,” he says, “a spokeswoman for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, would not say when the minister was made aware of the issues around access documents from the JAG’s office or Norman. She stated the Liberal government has made openness and transparency its guiding principles since taking office. Furlong blamed the Conservative government, which was last in power more than three years ago, for delays at DND in releasing access requests.” Now that’s a real side splitter … the Trudeau regimes is, at the very least, just as secretive, maybe even more so, than the Harper government ever was, likely because, being far less competent, they have more mistakes to hide.