Tag Archives: democracy

Ethical Oil and the Northern Gateway Pipeline Process

This piece is cross-posted from the Toronto Star’s Op-Ed Page.

This week the “ethical oil” argument adopted by the federal government took an interesting twist. While billions from China pour into Canada to develop the oilsands and fund the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline, on Monday the government announced its desire to revise the rules so that Canadians will have less time to share their concerns and properly review these massive projects.

Why the change? Because environmental organizations, “other radical groups” and, ironically, foreign money, are allegedly corrupting the process. Is this the future of ethical oil — a world where the Canadian government limits its citizens’ ability to talk over an issue so that China, a country the Prime Minister’s communications director calls a dictatorship, can be allowed to own and exploit Canada’s natural resources?

It’s a curious twist. Many Canadians — me included — agree with one part of Ezra Levant’s ethical oil argument: oil should be evaluated by its environmental impact as well as its effect on the respect for human rights and international stability.

But where does it leave the government’s case for ethical oil if Canadians are sidelined in the decision-making process to please a country both Levant and the Prime Minister have accused of human rights violations? Indeed, on his show The Source, Levant is often critical of China, hosting discussions on how “the freedoms of its people are still on the decline” and labelling the country a “dictatorship.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has had equally strong words about China. He once said of the country: “I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values — our belief in democracy, freedom, human rights. They don’t want to sell that out to the almighty dollar.”

So why start now? Especially when Canadians share the Prime Minister’s former concern. A recent poll of British Columbians showed that 73 per cent were worried or very worried about China investing in or owning Canada’s natural resources. Given the environmental implications, the broader ethical concerns raised by Levant, as well as the government’s promise to be more transparent and more engaged with Canadians, this is precisely the wrong time to limit discussion.

There is also a great deal to discuss with regard to foreign influence. Although the word “China” only appears once on the Northern Gateway pipeline website, Sinopec, China’s second largest energy company, was part of a group that recently invested $100 million in the pipeline, the terms of which also enable it to buy an ownership stake in the future. It also spent $4.65 billion (U.S.) to buy 9 per cent of Syncrude Canada. Another company affiliated with the Chinese government just paid $673 million (U.S.) for the remaining 40 per cent of the MacKay River oilsands development, completing its takeover of the project.

If the Northern Gateway pipeline is built, the influence of foreign money in Canada — especially from China — will increase, not decrease. Doesn’t the ethical oil argument demand that Canadians be given a comprehensive opportunity to discuss the pipeline and its impact?

Ultimately, this is why Canadians should be cautious about changing the rules for reviewing projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline. As more money flows in, the numerous decisions risk becoming less and less about Canada and more and more about China. This is something that deserves more conversation, not less.

Finally, I don’t know if the pipeline should be built, and suspect most Canadians don’t either. But this is probably the most important reason Canada needs a process that allows for a far-reaching consultation, so that a broad set of perspectives and issues may be heard. Maybe the new rules would be sensible. But proposing to change the rules on the fly, decrying the trickle of foreign money from the United States while ignoring billions from China and labelling those who would question or criticize the oilsands as “radicals” doesn’t inspire confidence as an opening move.

As leader of the opposition, a younger Stephen Harper once correctly asserted: “When a government starts trying to cancel dissent or avoid dissent is frankly when it’s rapidly losing its moral authority to govern.” The Prime Minister tapped into a powerful truth in that moment — a truth that Canadians still hold dear today. If the government’s approach to the pipeline amounts to nothing more than disempowering Canadians — and in particular the project’s critics — then its cancelling and avoidance of dissent will inspire confidence in neither the ethical oil brand nor the government itself.

The Geopolitics of the Open Government Partnership: the beginning of Open vs. Closed

Aside from one or two notable exceptions, there hasn’t been a ton of press about the Open Government Partnership (OGP). This is hardly surprising. The press likes to talk about corruption and bad government, people getting together to talk about actually address these things in far less sexy.

But even where good coverage exists analysts and journalists are, I think, misunderstanding the nature of the partnership and its broader implications should it take hold. Presently it is generally seen as a do good project, one that will help fight corruption and hopefully lead to some better governance (both of which I hope will be true). However, the Open Government Partnership isn’t just about doing good, it has real strategic and geopolitical purposes.

In fact, the OGP is, in part, about a 21st century containment strategy.

For those unfamiliar with 20th century containment, a brief refresher. Containment refers to a strategy outlined by a US diplomat – George Kennan – who while posted in Moscow wrote the famous The Long Telegram in which he outlined the need for a more aggressive policy to deal with an expansionist post-WWII Soviet Union. He argued that such a policy would need to seek to isolate the USSR politically and strategically, in part by positioning the United States as a example in the world that other countries would want to work with. While discussions of “containment” often focus on its military aspects and the eventual arms race, it was equally influential in prompting the ideological battle between the USA and USSR as they sought to demonstrate whose “system” was superior.

So I repeat. The OGP is part of a 21st century containment policy. And I’d go further, it is a effort to forge a new axis around which America specifically, and a broader democratic camp more generally, may seek to organize allies and rally its camp. It abandons the now outdated free-market/democratic vs. state-controlled/communist axis in favour of a more subtle, but more appropriate, open vs. closed.

The former axis makes little sense in a world where authoritarian governments often embrace (quasi) free-market to reign, and even have some of the basic the trappings of a democracy. The Open Government Partnership is part of an effort to redefine and shift the goal posts around what makes for a free-market democracy. Elections and a market place clearly no longer suffice and the OGP essentially sets a new bar in which a state must (in theory) allow itself to be transparent enough to provide its citizens with information (and thus power), in short: it is a state can’t simple have some of the trappings of a democracy, it must be democratic and open.

But that also leaves the larger question. Who is being contained? To find out that answer take a look at the list of OGP participants. And then consider who isn’t, and likely never could be, invited to the party.

OGP members Notably Absent
Albania
Azerbaijan
Brazil
Bulgaria
Canada
Chile
Colombia
Croatia
Czech Republic
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Estonia
Georgia
Ghana
Guatemala
Honduras
Indonesia
Israel
Italy
Jordon
Kenya
Korea
Latvia
Liberia
Lithuania
Macedonia
Malta
Mexico
Moldova
Mongolia
Montenegro
Netherlands
Norway
Peru
Philippines
Romania
Slovak Republic
South Africa
Spain
Sweden
Tanzania
Turkey
Ukraine
United Kingdom
United States
Uruguay
ChinaIran

Russia

Saudi Arabia

(Indeed much of the middle East)

Pakistan

*India is not part of the OGP but was involved in much of initial work and while it has withdrawn (for domestic political reasons) I suspect it will stay involved tangentially.

So first, what you have here is a group of countries that are broadly democratic. Indeed, if you were going to have a democratic caucus in the United Nations, it might look something like this (there are some players in that list that are struggling, but for them the OGP is another opportunity to consolidate and reinforce the gains they’ve made as well as push for new ones).

In this regards, the OGP should be seen as an effort by the United States and some allies to find some common ground as well as a philosophical touch point that not only separates them from rivals, but that makes their camp more attractive to deal with. It’s no trivial coincidence that on the day of the OGP launch the President announced the United States first fulfilled commitment would be its decision to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The EITI commits the American oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments made to foreign governments, which would make corruption much more difficult.

This is America essentially signalling to African people and their leaders – do business with us, and we will help prevent corruption in your country. We will let you know if officials get paid off by our corporations. The obvious counter point to this is… the Chinese won’t.

It’s also why Brazil is a co-chair, and the idea was prompted during a meeting with India. This is an effort to bring the most important BRIC countries into the fold.

But even outside the BRICs, the second thing you’ll notice about the list is the number of Latin American, and in particular African countries included. Between the OGP, the fact that the UK is making government transparency a criteria for its foreign aid, and that World Bank is increasingly moving in the same direction, the forces for “open” are laying out one path for development and aid in Africa. One that rewards governance and – ideally – creates opportunities for African citizens. Again, the obvious counter point is… the Chinese won’t.

It may sounds hard to believe but the OGP is much more than a simple pact designed to make heads of state look good. I believe it has real geopolitical aims and may be the first overt, ideological salvo in the what I believe will be the geopolitical axis of Open versus Closed. This is about finding ways to compete for the hearts and minds of the world in a way that China, Russia, Iran and others simple cannot. And, while I agree we can debate the “openness” of the various the signing countries, I like the idea of world in which states compete to be more open. We could do worse.

Egypt: Connected to revolution

This piece is cross-posted from the Opinion Page of the Toronto Star which was kind enough to publish it this morning.

Over the weekend something profound happened. The Egyptian government, confronted with growing public unrest, attempted to disconnect itself. It shut down its cellular and telephone networks and unplugged from the Internet.

It was a startling recognition of this single most powerful force driving change in our world: connectivity. Our world is increasingly divided between the connected and the disconnected, between open and closed. This could be the dominant struggle of the 21st century and it forces us to face important questions about our principles and the world we want to live in.

Why does connectivity matter? Because it allows for free association and self-expression, both of which can allow powerful narratives to emerge in a society beyond the control of any elite.

In Egypt, the protests do not appear driven by some organized cabal. The Muslim Brotherhood — so long held up as the dangerous alternative to the regime — was caught flat-footed by the protests. The National Coalition for Change, headed by Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, seems to have emerged as the protesters’ leader, not their instigator.

Instead, Egypt may simply have reached a tipping point. Its citizens, having witnessed the events in Tunisia, came to realize they were no longer atomized and uncoordinated in the face of a police state. They could self-organize, connect with one another, share stories and videos, organize meetings and protests. In short, they could tell their own narratives to one another, outside the government’s control.

These stories can be powerful.

In Egypt, a video of an unknown protester being shot and carried away has generated a significant viewership. In Iran, the video of Neda Agha-Soltan dying from a gunshot wound transformed her into a symbol. In Tunisia, videos of protestors being shot also helped mobilize the public.

Indeed, as the family of Mohamed Bouazizi — the man who by setting himself on fire out of frustration with local authorities, triggering the Tunisian protests — noted to an Al Jazeera reporter, people are protesting with “a rock in one hand, a cellphone in the other.”

This is what makes movements like this so hard to fight. There is no opposition group to blame, no subversive leadership to decapitate, no central broadcast authority to shut down. The only way to stop the protests is to eliminate the participants’ capacity to self-organize. During the Green Revolution in Iran, that meant shutting down some key websites; in Egypt, it appears to mean shutting down all communication.

Of course, this state of affairs cannot continue indefinitely. Too much of the Egyptian economy depends on people being able to connect. The network that makes possible a modern economy also makes possible a popular uprising.

At some point Egypt will have to decide: disconnect forever like North Korea, or reconnect and confront the reality of the connected world.

For those of us who believe in freedom, individuality, self-expression and democracy, connectivity is among our most powerful tools because it makes possible alternative narratives.

From East Germany to the Philippines, Iran to Tunisia, connectivity has played a key role in helping people organize against governments that would deny them their rights. It’s a tool democracies have often used, from broadcasts like Radio Free Europe during the Cold War to the U.S. government’s request that Twitter not conduct a planned upgrade to its website that would have disrupted its service during the recent Iranian Green Revolution.

But if we believe in openness, we must accept its full consequences. Our own governments have a desire to disconnect us from one another when they deem the information to be too dangerous.

Today most U.S. government departments, and some Canadian ministries, still deny their employees access to WikiLeak documents, disconnecting them from information that is widely available to the general public.

More darkly, the government pressured companies such as Amazon and Paypal to not offer their services to WikiLeaks — much like the Iranian government tried to disrupt Twitter’s service and the Tunisian government attempted to hijack Facebook’s. Nor is connectivity a panacea. In Iran, the regime uses photos and videos from social networks and websites to track down protestors. Connectivity does not guarantee freedom; it is simply a necessary ingredient.

The events in Egypt are a testament to the opportunity of the times we live in. Connectivity is changing our world, making us more powerful individually and collectively. But ultimately, if we wish to champion freedom and openness abroad — to serve as the best possible example for countries like Egypt — we must be prepared to do so at home.

David Eaves is a Vancouver-based public policy entrepreneur and adviser on open government and open data. He blogs at eaves.ca

The best moment in Canadian democracy in 2010?: the census debate

Over at Samara, my friend Alison Loat is asking people to answer the question “What was the best moment in Canadian democracy in 2010?” In what I think was a good decision, they’ve defined the terms pretty broadly, stating:

The moment could be one that took place inside or outside of Parliament or other legislative chambers.  It could have happened at the federal, provincial, territorial or municipal level.  It could include any number of things, such as an election with a historic turnout, a stimulating public debate, a rally or protest, a critical piece of news analysis, the creation of a new digital application, or an important Parliamentary motion or decision.

If you’ve got an idea I encourage you to hear over there and write it up and submit it! The Samara people are great and are up to good work, so definitely worth checking out.

I’ve got one answer the question myself – what follows is my write up. I think I may even have one more in me… but here’s my first effort:

The Census Debate as Canada’s 2010 democratic moment.

In a functioning democracy disagreement is necessary and healthy. But at its core there most be some basic agreement – some shared understanding of who we are, as a people and as a society. This shared understanding not only serves as the basic facts that must inform our debates but also the basis of our shared identity that keeps us together even when we disagree.

This is why the census is so important, and why it is my choice for the best moment in Canadian democracy for 2010. The census binds us together by creating a shared understanding of who we are. Even the most marginalized Canadians stand up and are counted and thus can be reflected and heard in our national discourse.

That’s why at a time when Canadian political coverage tries to cleave the country’s citizens into different, competing groups – rural versus urban, French versus English, left versus right – I think the best moment in Canadian Democracy was seeing over 500 groups including all levels of government, non-profits from across the country, business organizations, rural communities, and virtually all the major religious organizations come together and challenge the government with one voice.

What a great democratic moment that so many organizations, that often disagree on so many issues, can collectively agree on a core shared interest: that a functioning democracy and an effective government is built on a foundation of some basic information about who we are. Even more so when the government tried to make the decision in secret, announcing it quietly on a friday, during a long weekend in the middle of summer.

The decision and the process surrounding it may be one of the year’s darkest moments for Canadian democracy but the country’s reaction was definitely one of our brightest.

An Open Letter on Open Government to the Access to Information, Privacy & Ethics Parliamentary Committee

The other week I received an invitation from the Canadian Standing Parliamentary Committee on Access to Information, Privacy & Ethics to come and testify about open government and open data on February 1st.

The Committee has talked a great deal about its efforts to engage in a study of open government and since February 1st is quite a bit away and I’d like to be helpful before my testimony, I thought I draft up some thoughts and suggestion for the committee’s strategy. I know these are unsolicited but I hope they are helpful and, if not, that they at least spark some helpful thoughts.

1. Establish a common understanding of the current state of affairs

First off, the biggest risk at the moment is that the Committee’s work might actually slow down efforts of the government to launch an open data strategy. The Committee’s work, and the drafting of its report, is bound to take several months, it would be a shame if the government were to hold back launching any initiatives in anticipation of this report.

Consequently, my hope is that the committee, at is earliest possible convenience, request to speak to the Chief Information Officer of the Government of Canada to get an update regarding the current status of any open government and open data initiatives, should they exist. This would a) create a common understanding regarding the current state of affairs for both committee members and witnesses; b) allow subsequent testimony and recommendations to take into consideration the work already done and c) allow the committee to structure its work so as to not slow down any current efforts that might be already underway.

2. Transform the Committee into a Government 2.0 Taskforce – similar to the Australian effort

Frankly, my favourite approach in this space has been the British. Two Government’s, one Labour, one Conservative have aggressive pursued an open data and open government strategy. This, would be my hope for Canada. However, it does not appear that is is presently the case. So, another model should be adopted. Fortunately, such a model exists.

Last year, under the leadership of Nicholas Gruen, the Australian government launched a Government 2.0 taskforce on which I had the pleasure of serving on the International Reference Group. The Australian Taskforce was non-partisan and was made up of policy and technical experts and entrepreneurs from government, business, academia, and cultural institutions. More importantly, the overwhelming majority of its recommendations were adopted.

To replicate its success in Canada I believe the Committee should copy the best parts of the Australian taskforce. The topic of Canadians access to their government is of central importance to all Canadians – to non-profits, to business interests, to public servants and, of course, to everyday citizens. Rather than non-partisan, I would suggest that a Canadian taskforce should be pan-partisan – which the Committee already is. However, like the Australian Taskforce it should include a number of policy and technical experts from outside government. This fill committee would this represent both a political cross-section and substantive knowledge in the emerging field of government 2.0. It could thus, as a whole, effectively and quickly draft recommendations to Parliament.

Best of all, because of step #1, this work could proceed in parallel to any projects (if any) already initiated by the government and possibly even inform such work by providing interim updates.

I concede such an approach may be too radical, but I hope it is at least a starting point for an interesting approach.

3. Lead by Example

There is one arena where politicians need not wait on the government to make plans: Parliament itself. Over the past year, while in conversations with the Parliamentary IT staff as well as the Speaker of the House, I have worked to have Parliament make more data about its own operations open. Starting in January, the Parliamentary website will begin releasing the Hansard in XML – this will make it much easier for software developers like the creators of Openparliament.ca as and howdtheyvote.ca to run their sites and for students, researchers and reporters to search and analyze our country’s most important public discussions. In short, by making the Hansard more accessible the Speaker and his IT staff are making parliament more accessible. But this is only the beginning of what parliamentarians could do to make for a truly Open Parliament. The House and Senate’s schedules and agendas, along with committee calendars should all be open. So to should both chambers seating arrangement. Member’s photos and bios should be shared with an unrestricted license as should the videos of parliament.

Leadership in this space would send a powerful message to both the government and the public service that Canada’s politicians are serious about making government more open and accessible to those who elect it. In addition, it could also influence provincial legislature’s and even municipal governments, prompting them to do the same and so enhance our democracy at every level.

4. Finally, understand your task: You are creating a Knowledge Government for a Knowledge Society

One reason I advise the Committee to take on external members is because, laudably, many admit this topic is new to them. But I also want the committee members to understand the gravity of their task. Open Government, Open Data and/or Government 2.0 are important first steps in a much larger project.

What you are really wrestling with here is what government is going to look like in an knowledge economy and a knowledge society. How is going to function with knowledge workers as employees? And, most importantly, how is it going to engage with knowledge citizens, many of whom can and want to make real contributions beyond the taxes they pay and don’t need government to self-organize?

In short, what is a knowledge based government going to look like?

At the centre of that question is how we manage and share information. The basic building block of a knowledge driven society.

Look around, and you can see how the digital world is transforming how we do everything. Few of us can imagine living today without access to the internet and the abundance of information it brings to us. Indeed, we have already become so used to the internet we forget how much it has radically changed whole swaths of our life and economy from the travel and music industry to the post to political fund-raising and to journalism.

If today our government still broadly looks and feels like an institution shaped by the printing press it is because, well it is. Deputy Ministers and Ministers still receive giant briefing binders filled with paper. This is a reflection of how we deal within information and knowledge in government, we move it around (for good reasons) in siloes, operating as though networks, advance search, and other innovations don’t exist (even though they already do).

How our government deals with information is at the heart of your task. I’m not saying you have to re-invent government or dismantle all the silos and ministries. Quite the contrary, I believe small changes can be made that will yield significant benefits, efficiencies and savings while enhancing our democracy. But you will be confronting decades, if not centuries of tradition, culture and process in an institution that is about to go through the biggest change since the invention of the printing press. You don’t have to do it all, but even some small first steps will not come easily. I share this because I want you going into the task with eyes wide open.

At the very least we aren’t going first, our cousins both across the Atlantic, the Pacific and our southern border have already taken the plunge. But this should add urgency to our task. We cannot afford to stand by while others renew their democratic institutions while simultaneously enhancing an emerging and critical pillar of a new knowledge economy and knowledge society.

Right to Know Week – going on Right Now

So, for those not in the know (…groan) this week is Right to Know Week.

Right to Know (RTK) Week is and internationally designated week with events taking place around the world. It is designed to improve people’s awareness of their rights to access government information and the role such access plays in democracy and good governance. Here in Canada there is an entire week’s worth of events planned and it is easy to find out what’s happening near you.

Last year, during RTK Week I was invited to speak in Ottawa on a panel for parliamentarians. My talk, called Government Transparency in a Digital Age (blog post about it & slideshare link) seemed to go well and the Information Commissioner soon after started quoting some of my ideas and writings in her speeches and testimony/reports to parliamentary. Unsurprisingly, she has become a fantastic ally and champion in the cause for open data. Indeed, most recently, the Federal Information Commissioner, along with all the her provincial counterparts, released a joint statement calling on their respective governments to proactively disclosing information “in open, accessible and reusable formats.”

What is interesting about all this, is that over the course of the last year the RTK community – as witnessed by the Information Commissioners transformation – has begun to understand why “the digital” is radically transforming what access means and how it can work. There is an opportunity to significantly enlarge the number and type of allies in the cause of “open government.” But for this transformation to take place, the traditional players will need to continue to rethink and revise both their roles and their relationships with these new players. This is something I hope to pick up on in my talk.

So yes… this year, I’ll be back in Ottawa again.

I’ll once again be part of the Conference for Parliamentarians-Balancing Openness and the Public Interest in Protecting Information panel, which I’ll be doing with:

  • David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States
  • Vanessa Brinkmann, Counsel, Initial Request Staff, Office of Information Policy, U.S. Department of Justice; and
  • James Travers of the Toronto Star

Perhaps even more exciting than the panel I’m on though is the panel that shows how quickly both this week and the Information Officer’s are trying to transform. Consider that, this year, RTK will include a panel on open data titled Push or Pull: Liberating Government Information” it will be chaired by Microsoft’s John Weigelt and have on it:

  • Nathalie Des Rosiers, General Counsel, Canadian Civil Liberties Association
  • Toby Mendel, Executive Director of the Centre for Law and Democracy
  • Kady O’Malley, Parliamentary blogger for CBC.ca’s Inside Politics blog
  • Jeff Sallot, Carleton University journalism instructor and former Globe and Mail journalist

Sadly I have a prior commitment back in Vancouver so won’t be there in person, but hope to check it out online, hope you will too.

Welcome to Right to Know Week. Hope you’ll join in the fray.

Open Canada – Hello Globe and Mail?

Richard Poynder has a wonderful (and detailed) post on his blog Open and Shut about the state of open data in the UK. Much of it covers arguments about why open data matters economically and democratically (the case I’ve been making as well). It is worthwhile reading for policy makers and engaged citizens.

There is however a much more important lesson buried in the article. It is in regard to the role of the Guardian newspaper.

As many of you know I’ve been advocating for Open Data at all levels of government, and in particular, at the federal level. This is why I and others created datadotgc.ca: If the government won’t create an open data portal, we’ll create one for them. The goal of course, was to show them that it already does open data, and that it could do a lot, lot more (there is a v2 of the site in the works that will offer some more, much cooler functionality coming soon).

What is fascinating about Poynder’s article is the important role the Guardian has played in bringing open data to the UK. Consider this small excerpt from his post.

For The Guardian the release of COINS marks a high point in a crusade it began in March 2006, when it published an article called “Give us back our crown jewels” and launched the Free Our Data campaign. Much has happened since. “What would have been unbelievable a few years ago is now commonplace,” The Guardian boasted when reporting on the release of COINS.

Why did The Guardian start the Free Our Data campaign? Because it wanted to draw attention to the fact that governments and government agencies have been using taxpayers’ money to create vast databases containing highly valuable information, and yet have made very little of this information publicly available.

The lesson here is that a national newspaper in the UK played a key role in pressuring a system of government virtually identical to our own (now also governed by a minority, conservative lead government) to release one of the most important data in its possession – the Combined Online Information System (COINS). This on top of postal codes and what we would find in Stats Canada’s databases.

All this leads me to ask one simple question. Where is the Globe and Mail? I’m not sure its editors have written a single piece calling for open data (am I wrong here?). Indeed, I’m not even sure the issue is on their radar. It certainly has done nothing close to launching a “national campaign.” They could do the Canadian economy, democracy and journalism and world of good. Open data can be championed by individual advocates such as myself but having a large media player repeatedly raising the issue, time and time again brings out the type of pressure few individuals can muster.

All this to say, if the Globe ever gets interested, I’m here. Happy to help.