A number of recent situations both provincially and federally indicate that governments in Canada have a problem with transparency.
Last week, of course, former attorney general and current Energy Minister Chris Bentley’s actions on the gas-plant file sparked a debate over whether he had acted in contempt of parliament by refusing to release documents related to the cancellation of energy projects in Oakville and Mississauga, Ont.
Around the same time, federal parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page mused about possibly taking the government to court for withholding information about spending cutbacks.
Both situations involve important public-interest matters. On the provincial level, Bentley argued that in the case of the Mississauga plant, litigation and solicitor-client privilege, as well as the commercial sensitivity of the some of the information, prevented him from releasing documents.
On the federal front, officials have argued they’ll release details about the cutbacks later and that, given that people’s jobs are at stake, it’s prudent for them to withhold the information for the time being.
Bentley complied with a legislative committee’s request for documents last week after negotiations over the Mississauga plant wrapped up.
But opposition MPPs claim the government is still holding some information back and argue it shouldn’t have refused to release it in the first place given the public’s right to know details about the gas-plant cancellations.
In fact, earlier in September, legislature Speaker Dave Levac found a prima facie case for contempt on Bentley’s part.
“The right to order production of documents is fundamental to and necessary for the proper functioning of the assembly,” he told MPPs.
Levac referred to former House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken’s 2010 finding that while ministers may argue against production for reasons similar to those noted by Bentley, parliamentary privilege should prevail.
Levac went on to refer to Milliken’s exhortation to parliamentarians to find a compromise through solutions such as allowing legislators to view the documents while holding back sensitive details from public release.
The government, of course, would have been wise to follow that path in the first place. Both the gas-plant and federal budgetary issues involve matters of vital public interest.
But it seems neither the federal the nor provincial government wants parliamentarians or the public to know about them. Both governments, it seems, have a problem with transparency.