By Micheal Vonn
Citizens of British Columbia who have been crying out for government transparency can now uncork the champagne. After years of access to government information eroding in a culture of secrecy and gutted freedom of information laws, we finally have something to celebrate.
Last week, journalist Sean Holman posted a link on his Web site to the B.C. Public Service Executive Role Profile. This document is part of the job description for senior civil servants and it is as transparent a government document as you are ever likely to see. It comes right out and says that the government considers it part of the job of senior bureaucrats to fabricate crises in order to advance policy. How’s that for laying it on the line?
Here’s exactly what it says under the “Characteristics/Behaviours” section of the role profile: “Executives anticipate, and are prepared to institute change quickly. At times, to capitalize on the best opportunity, executives create a crisis to force change.”
Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine is a book all about political and economic exploitation of disasters like September 11 and Hurricane Katrina. Political exploitation of crisis is apparently such standard operating procedure that President Barack Obama’s advisor Rahm Emanuel has blandly stated, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
But thanks to the B.C. government’s New Transparency, we see the cutting-edge innovation of actually manufacturing the crisis. And we further learn that opportunistic crisis-creation is not despicable. In fact, it is a vocation reserved for the selflessly brave, as we see in the document under the somber header “Are You Courageous Enough?” which follows: “Positive opportunism, instituting change and creating crisis involves a high level of risk and risk taking. Executives are prepared to take these risks, have the courage to move forward, and acknowledge the ultimate consequence if they do not succeed.”
Let’s not get too caught up in the Tony Soprano talk about “ultimate consequences”; it’s the fabricated crises and “positive opportunism” that is the main point. Nobody accuses the public of being insufficiently cynical about politicians. Voting rates alone tell a sorry tale. We might be forgiven for trusting in the civil service though. Up until we read the B.C. Public Service Executive Role Profile, we thought we were worldly and urbane because we expected senior government bureaucrats to be well-versed in damage control. Turns out we were a bunch of hayseeds. Damage control? Try damage creation! Thanks to the New Transparency, we now know how truly cynical to be.
And we are grateful for this enlightenment, as there is always a certain grisly satisfaction in having our lowest surmises confirmed. But we can’t help but feel just a touch depressed too.
When we think about what it means to live in a democracy, we think about voting and fundamental freedoms and the separation of powers. It’s been a while since it’s been fashionable to include ethics and trust on the list, let alone truth. At the risk of sounding hopelessly retro, this is not good. Our spin culture has now spun so far out of control that the effective functioning of our democracy is seriously damaged.
Simply put, the big idea with democracy is that the citizens are the rulers, and we rule ourselves through our governments and we make our decisions about government based on information. The whole system falls down if we have no information, only infomercials and fabricated crises. That we have a government that is blatantly advertising for crisis-fabricators to head up the civil service should give us very serious concern. Civil servants deserve respect and citizens deserve the truth. We call on the government of British Columbia to leave off crisis-creation and attend to the real crisis of democracy that has become only too apparent.
Micheal Vonn is the policy director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.