In every level of politics transparency is a word that tends to be thrown around a lot. It’s a word that we often listen for and want to hear from our candidates for good reason. Transparency doesn’t mean anything political until we attach its definition to politics. Simply, it means to be transparent which is to be clear and to have the ability to see through something of substance. When we align this definition to politics, what we then mean by being “transparent” is that we are being clear and open about our actions and what we are doing; that we are hiding nothing and being open about everything. In relation to politics on all levels, transparency is difficult to ensure.
Political transparency is something that we value because it implies integrity, honesty, fairness and openness. This is a great aim and it should be something every politician at any level should strive to have. However, transparency has become more of a buzzword in Nova Scotia’s politics. It is a word that is taken hostage by all sides and each of them refuses to let it go. We see the word transparency and we might immediately begin to think the opposite; that someone is simply trying to gain support by offering a promise they may never or are unable to keep.
What then, in Nova Scotia, has turned the meaning of transparency inward so that it means either nothing or the opposite to those that hear it? The answer is not a simple one, but it shouldn’t necessarily be complex. The short answer is that transparency is being said and not done. The long answer is that being transparent means to take a number of measures and steps that can be tedious or inconvenient to politicians at times. Such measures can be as simple as posting public minutes of board meetings or could be larger in nature as organizing public assemblies for discussion.
Another aspect of transparency is being honest to your membership or constituency when asked questions or when they are seeking information; that your constituents are no longer left in the dark but left with answers. This is the true aim of transparency where political representatives consult in open and honest means of communications with those they are representing. How else will they be able to make a decision in the best interest of their constituents if they are not honestly consulting and providing their constituency with accurate information?
So then, we can tell the transparency of a political figure by their actions as opposed to their words. If one makes promise to be transparent then they must be actively transparent. There are many ways to do this for elected MLAs, local politicians, and even representatives like student leaders! These can include public minutes of meetings, audited financial statements, public assemblies and town halls, and open consultation with people. These are all great ways to be transparent; however they are only a method in which one may be transparent. They don’t guarantee the spirit of transparency. For example there are many instances of public minutes of a meeting not containing all information that was actually discussed (beyond understandable in camera discussions that may deal with sensitive information) which defeats the point of public minutes.
This then begs the question that if the methods of transparency are just that, a method, what ensures transparency? The answer to that is simply nothing. Nothing will completely ensure transparency of political representatives to perfection. The only fallback that comes close to policing transparency of politicians is the will of the constituents; the will of those being represented. Ultimately, transparency is a responsibility. Not just a responsibility of political representatives, but a responsibility of the people. Transparency must be a mutual understanding between politician and constituency where the politician must remain transparent or be held accountable by the people if they fall anything short of that. It is something in which every party must take the responsibility given to them seriously and with utmost care.
This responsibility can be difficult to maintain, particularly when you are bound by confidentiality in regards to certain information. In my role as Executive Vice-President at CBU’s Students’ Union this has been a constant obstacle. There is no easy way around confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements because. Particularly difficult are some of the sensitive matters discussed at CBU’s Board of Governors because there we are expected to maintain confidentiality to the fullest extent. Yet, as a student leader I am elected and expected to provide information to the membership of the Students’ Union. It is unfortunate how often I and my fellow executive team of the students’ union have found ourselves in this situation. Whether it was our legal strife with the Canadian Federation of Students or the collective bargaining between CBU and the faculty association, we have been bound to keep certain information private and confidential. The responsibility of transparency to us then, is not to break that confidentiality but to explain it and what it means and the circumstances surrounding it.
Confidentiality, I have learned, does not mean a complete lack of transparency. Yes, it does make transparency more difficult to maintain, but it does not make it impossible. Transparency, in the case of the collective bargaining, was maintained when we were honest with our membership about what we could or could not say. We held a student town hall solely for our membership so that they had the opportunity to come and ask any question to us and gather as much possible information. We explained the situation as best as we could and how we ended up where we did. In addition, we had the town hall videotaped and posted online for those that couldn’t attend and we did a general FAQ on our website with information students should know. The greatest takeaway from the situation in the context of transparency was that our honesty of what we could or could not disclose about the situation was appreciated and understood. Perhaps it did not give everyone satisfaction, but we provided the maximum amount of information we could as soon as we could without breaching confidentiality. It took work and it took time, but we did achieve that delicate balance, I believe, between upholding our responsibilities to the Board of Governors and upholding our responsibility of transparency to our students.
The responsibility of transparency to the politician means being open and honest about their actions and how they’re representing their constituency. It means that they are answering questions honestly and making information and facts public and available to anyone. It means that they are actively working in the best interest of the people they represent and that they are not hiding anything that might benefit them at the cost of those represented people. The responsibility of transparency to the people means the active seeking of information and asking questions to their representatives. It means identifying the methods in which transparency can be conveyed. But above all, it means identifying the lack of transparency when it arises and ensuring that we hold our representatives accountable for it and that our voices are heard so that we may move forward with that mutual responsibility in a civil manner.