Thursday, 31 October 2013

REPORT ON SEX TRADE: DEFAULT TO SECRECY

Professionals, policy analysts, social agencies and sex workers, especially those of immature age, caught in a web of financial dependency and exploitation must still be wondering why Minister Charlene Johnson and RNC Deputy Chief Bill Janes undertook to suppress a study on the sex trade and admonish CBC reporter, Adam Walsh, for releasing excerpts. 

At issue is a 2011 Report on sexual exploitation titled: "It's Nobody's Mandate and Everyone's Responsibility: Sexual Exploitation and the Sex Trade in Newfoundland and Labrador”.  Johnson and Janes wanted it neither released nor discussed, stating it was too harmful.

They were not prepared to disclose even as much information as contained in a CD freely distributed throughout the school system.  Their reasons may have been poor articulation or a more paternalistic notion, one implied but not announced” “we know what’s good for you”.  Either way, their stonewalling was baffling.
I thought it might be useful to invoke, in the absence of any high sounding words from the Minister or the Deputy Chief, those of more thoughtful people:

The overarching purpose of access to information legislation … is to facilitate democracy. It does so in two related ways. It helps to ensure first, that citizens have the information required to participate meaningfully in the democratic process, and secondly, that politicians and bureaucrats remain accountable to the citizenry.   - Gerard LaForest, former Supreme Court of Canada Justice, in Dagg vs. Canada (1997)

Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show it can bear discussion and publicity.  - Lord Acton, English historian, writer and politician

Mr. Justice LaForest and Lord Acton are voices of caution against secrecy for its own reward.

Many members of the public agree, too, that though it may be inconvenient, citizens have a right and a need to access most of the information government collects. Hence, governments should be niggardly, not with exposure, but with secrecy.     

If the Minister and the Deputy Chief had suggested that before release they should first protect innocent victims, informants or other vulnerable participants identified in the Study, who would have questioned that obligation?  The media would have asked, as it did: “why the government couldn’t redact sensitive information, but release other parts of the report”. 

Minister Johnson’s incomprehensible reply was: “You’re missing the whole point. The whole point is that, by even saying that we’re doing a piece of work around this, will cause potential harm to these people involved. That’s the whole point.”  As if Johnson had not slammed the door enough, she chose to compound a closed mind, adding: “even acknowledging the existence of the report causes potential harm to public safety.”

The Minister’s comments are not just incredulous.  They are incoherent.   

How publicly airing a serious social problem will exacerbate it is to misunderstand the fundamental process of repair; it is to misrepresent her role as a legislator and policy maker. 

The Minister sports a cavalier, even dangerous view of how and secrecy should be employed and of its limited benefit.   She invites the kind of response received from Dr. Winters, a PhD candidate who researches sex work and who commented, at length, following the Minister’s and Deputy’s news briefing. 

Said Winters: “…by sitting on it, the government is saying, 'You know, really, you don't matter. It doesn't matter that this is happening in this province, and you know, we're not really going to do anything about it."   

On what basis would the Minister expect the community to draw a different conclusion?

When an elected official gets carried away with an unwise narrative, or becomes engaged in flights of rhetorical flourish it is always hoped that someone, close by, will step in and rescue her from pedagogical embarrassment. 

It is hoped the expert accompanying the inexpert Minister might contribute some greater logic, offer more contextual insight or strong proof of how releasing a redacted document or giving it mere mention, might offend the public interest. 

The RNC Deputy Chief, Bill Janes, to the reporter’s evident horror, chose not elaborate upon but to reinforce the Minister’s assertions.  Said Janes, “I will say that every question I answer puts more information into the public domain, which provides more information to those who could potentially do harm to others.”

Later the Minister said, “the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary advised against releasing the report, and they are the experts on public safety.”

If that is true it seems Minister Johnson did not exercise judgment, or lacked it, having failed to assess the credibility of the RNC’s advice.    

Indeed, the Minister and the Deputy Chief, having viewed the Report’s excerpts on the CBC’s web site, must have asked themselves: why didn’t we release that much?

The Government of which Ms. Johnson is a part has a reputation for secrecy.  It is well earned and not to its credit. If secrecy were anomalous for this Administration just possibly the CBC and social services groups might be prepared to cut it some slack. 

After Bill 29, the Minister ought to know the public is in no mood for yet more kneejerk default to secrecy.

Deputy Chief Janes should need no reminding that, while the police services are an arm of the Government, its independence is fundamental.  It must never allow itself to be an appendage of the Government’s propaganda machine. 

Mr. Justice Gerard LaForest was known for his intellect and the clarity with which he wrote his judgments.  Deputy Chief Janes will want to enlarge his reading list to include a selection of the Decisions of the former Judge and perhaps the sage words of Lord Acton, too. 

Chief Robert Johnston must know this was not one of the RNC’s finest moments.

3 comments:

  1. Every action of this government is so mired in secrecy that any pronouncements they do make must be considered self-serving. They are in survival mode and trying to operate in a bubble.

    I can't help but notice how NALCOR is spouting what is essentially government propaganda with their new ads designed to entice people to work on the Muskrat Falls project. It would be laughable were it not going to have such a long term negative impact on our fiscal situation.

    The secrecy is appalling but not surprising in the whole demeanour and actions of this government and it seems that it is using its proxies like NALCOR to spout more nonsense. However, when the government tries to put a lid on police and public safety issues that the public should be aware of, it is going further along the road to dictatorship. It is time for the RNC to exercise some independence and not allow this attempt at control to override their obligation to the very public that ultimately employs them.

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  2. Sex secrecy by the government and police! Anyone remember the David Day Report? The Mount Cashel scandal was confined by its terms of reference to that Catholic scandal. But all sorts of other sex scandals popped up. What to do? Gather it all and keep it secret. One scandal at a time was more than enough. Release the David Day Report? Certainly not. A few callers to Open Line kept asking for its release, but grew tired. Isn't this the essence of the David Day report..... a cover up?

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  3. If we don't talk about it, it will go away. Right?

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