The federal government’s treatment of information about the Champlain Bridge is an interesting case study about government communications, bureaucratic (and political) arrogance, and the general contempt held in Ottawa (and Quebec City) for the public.
In case you haven’t heard the story, it went down like this: Transport Canada minister Denis Lebel said that he wouldn’t release a study on the bridge because “When you make public information that is processed by people who are not necessarily knowledgeable about the subject, it can create worries that I do not want to create.”
This caused a storm of indignation, so two days later the report was released. The report was not, in fact, that hard to understand. This led the Liberal leader Bob Rae to announce that he did not believe that the public were getting all the reports that were out there – that, in effect, the government was pulling a fast one by substituting one report for another.
There can be no question that the matter was handled terribly. This is a subject of great sensitivity in Quebec, where a collapsing bridge several years ago killed five people. This led to revelations that inspections were not being done properly. Add to that the construction corruption scandal, and it’s safe to say that calling citizens stupid and prone to panic is both insulting and just plain wrong. They have a right to be concerned.
That said, I can understand the mentality that led to this position. Senior bureaucrats of all stripes have become less and less likely to be exerts in the field they manage due to the view that generalists can do anything. They live in bubbles and survive the cognitive dissonance by convincing themselves that really are quite clever (despite contradicting evidence). So when a report like this comes out, ignorance and arrogance leads them to the conclusion that the unwashed masses must be protected from themselves.
Lost in the equation is the public’s right to information – particularly information that might affect their safety.
The same approach is followed in other areas, departments, and governments. Transport Canada’s refusal to release statistics about airport security is based on the same wrong-headed reasoning (the U.S. releases its statistics) as is food safety inspection data.
The fact that the Liberals were no different when they were in power, or that the Quebec Liberals are still doing the same thing, shows how widespread the problem is. It also leads me to the conclusion that the problem is mainly at the bureaucratic level (as they stay on as governments change). That, and the speed with which the about-face was taken. Speedy changes like that only happen when politicians get involved, and contradicts the bureaucratic tendency to deny fault to the point of absurdity.
Government won’t release report on Montreal bridge in order to avoid public alarm
Montreal Gazette, July 12, 2011
Summary: The federal government has received a report on the state of Montreal’s Champlain Bridge but says it will not be releasing it, in order not to cause public alarm.
Champlain Bridge feasibility study released
Montreal Gazette, July 14, 2011
Summary: Ottawa has made public a long-awaited pre-feasibility study concerning the replacement of the Champlain Bridge.
Liberals demand release of Champlain data
Montreal Gazette, July 15, 2011
Summary: Federal Liberal leader Bob Rae says Ottawa is holding back crucial information about the state of the crumbling Champlain Bridge.
Mercier Bridge: Latest repair pokes a hole in inspections
Montreal Gazette, July 15, 2011
Summary: Since the emergency partial closure of the Mercier Bridge, Transport Quebec has insisted that the still-open section is safe and able to handle traffic while the other side is repaired.