Government secrecy makes it difficult to follow the money

By MPP Toby Barrett

Government ought to be all outside and no inside. . . . Everybody knows that corruption thrives in secret places, and avoids public places, and we believe it a fair presumption that secrecy means impropriety. ~ Woodrow Wilson

Having spent a number of  years on the Queen’s Park money committees – Finance, Estimates, and Public Accounts – I have a great deal of interest in an accurate accounting of Ontario’s fiscal and economic health.

However, the Ontario government is apparently hiding important financial information, making it nearly impossible to check on the province’s budget projections, according to Ontario’s financial watchdog.

Financial Accountability Officer Stephen LeClair recently released a warning to the Wynne government that if they don’t shape up he will consider making a formal complaint to the Speaker.

In 2014, Premier Wynne made the mandate letters written to her cabinet ministers available to the public. The letters – 30 in total — outlined the government’s priorities specific to the minister and the ministry.  This was all part of her new Open Government Initiative based on creating a more open and transparent government.

That was then, but recently we’ve learned of a very different now. Ontario’s Financial Accountability Officer (FAO), at the end of May, issued a stinging indictment of the Wynne government’s “broader pattern” of secrecy and refusal to provide information “impeding the ability of MPPs to perform their constitutional duties.” Ouch.

The Wynne government is neither open nor transparent – they missed the June 12th filing deadline that requires a long-range assessment of Ontario’s fiscal environment. Similarly, they’ve repeatedly missed financial filing requirements since 2012; they cancelled hearings on the gas plant scandal; and, they removed Legislative oversight with regard to Hydro One.

While FAO LeClair has attempted to access some of this unpublished information and numbers, he’s become concerned with some of the responses he’s received from ministries. “The difficulties I have faced in accessing the information my office needs to produce relevant and timely analyses are much greater than I expected they would be,” LeClair wrote in his recent statement adding he will be speaking to this in greater detail when he releases his annual report in late July.

While he will be detailing his frustrations in his annual report, LeClair briefly highlighted two areas of particular concern. The first is that ministries have refused to provide the FAO with information on grounds not founded in the office’s enabling legislation. Cabinet confidentiality – a principle that says deliberations of cabinet must be kept secret – is what Wynne’s government is hiding behind in this instance.

The second item involves the cap and trade program. The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change argued they were not required to give the FAO access because the bill was not finalized.

It’s ironic that during debate on the creation of an accountability office, members from all three parties stressed the importance of the officer being able to access all information necessary to fulfill the mandate – in fact MPPs of all stripes supported amendments to strengthen access.

In spite of all three parties saying there should be more transparency, there clearly seem to be measures in place to keep the citizens of Ontario in the dark.