Democracy can self-destruct in tiny steps


Last month, seeking legal information regarding certain municipal activities in the Pontiac, I contacted the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MAMH). Journalists often must ask various Ministries to clarify provincial laws in order to pass that information on to their readers. There are always protocols to adhere to, such as first contacting the organization’s media contacts, who in turn guide the journalist to the right subject matter expert (SME) and to facilitate arranging an interview.

My most recent exchange with the MAMH was frustrating. My request for an interview with a particular SME was rejected, without explanation.

I was asked to leave my question with a media officer over the phone, but when I called back for further clarification (in response to a vaguely-worded email answer), I was told to only communicate with the media office by email. This would mean sending my questions and waiting for a media officer to contact the responsible
person, get the answer, and then get back to me (a cycle we’d already found unfruitful.) Meanwhile, if their response prompted new questions or needed more clarification, I’d have to begin the whole process again. This system is very slow and bureaucratic to begin with; journalists need clear and timely answers, and in the end, the answers I eventually received did not fully answer my questions. It was frustrating that I could not have a conversation with a person knowledgeable about the law in question.

The press lives and breathes transparency. It is our job to ask questions and seek explanations on behalf of our readers. We are to find out what is going on, what problems we see, and then report them with evidence. If the authorities stonewall by keeping their distance, transparency will become the exception instead of the rule,
an eventuality at odds with Québécois and Canadian democracy.

Larger media surveys report that the public’s distrust of government authority has never been higher than it is now. In the Pontiac, lack of transparency seems also a top complaint by many residents, besides the media. Accusing authorities, mistrusting and attacking them are self-defeating reactions. Widespread public frustration with
an opaque public administration is most harmful to democratic government. To function effectively, popular governments need citizen engagement and cooperation; public distrust is a poison. The solution is simple and yet profound: positive, straightforward and transparent exchanges with the public. This is simple because it is not difficult to do, and yet profound because it protects the very essence of our democracy.