Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government is breaking with a trend set by Ottawa and other provincial governments to publicly release ministerial mandate letters, as Premier Doug Ford’s documented instructions to his ministers have been designated a cabinet secret.
Since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made his government’s mandate letters public in 2015 as part of a move toward greater accountability, nearly every province has followed suit and released the traditionally secret documents containing a minister’s marching orders. Before Mr. Ford’s move, Quebec was the only province where mandate letters issued to ministers are not made public.
Mr. Ford’s office said his decision not to release the letters was only a return to past norms.
“For the first time in 15 years, the people of Ontario have a government they can trust to keep their promises. Every Ontario Government prior to Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals kept mandate letters private,” said spokesman Simon Jefferies in a statement.
Designating the letters as cabinet secrets, one of the highest levels of secrecy available to the provincial government, means they will not be accessible to most civil servants nor will they be available to the public through freedom of information legislation.
Accountability advocates have criticized Mr. Ford’s decision to not release the letters as a move that restricts transparency. They argue that Mr. Ford’s relatively thin campaign platform in the June election has already restricted the public’s knowledge of his new government’s planned direction. Several of the Premier’s most contentious moves since taking power at Queen’s Park nearly two months ago were not publicly disclosed during his campaign, including his plan to reduce access to a public pharmaceutical program and to cut the size of Toronto’s council nearly in half.
Former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne released mandate letters for the first time in Ontario’s history in 2014. She subsequently released updated documents with each cabinet shuffle. “Releasing these mandate letters to the public increases openness and accountability,” said a statement from Ms. Wynne during the release of new mandate letters in 2016.
Mr. Ford’s platform also promises to “restore accountability and trust” to Ontario’s government. However, the Tory plan is focused on fiscal accountability issues, promising a line-by-line audit of government spending.
The official opposition New Democrats said in a statement that Mr. Ford’s decision to keep the mandate letters secret is a “disgraceful” move by the new government to cut back on transparency.
"They are ensuring that hard working-Ontarians will never know what instructions cabinet ministers have been given, leaving everyone in the dark about what cuts are coming next. Ontarians deserve a government that is open and transparent,” said NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson.
Releasing the letters gives the public notice of what decisions a government might make and helps groups organize, said Duff Conacher, the co-founder of Democracy Watch, an organization that advocates for government accountability.
“If you don’t have advanced notice of a government’s decision, it’s hard to make your voice heard. There’s no justifiable reason to do this except to keep your agenda secret,” said Mr. Conacher, who is also an adjunct professor of law and politics at the University of Ottawa.
Since the federal government’s move to release mandate letters raised public awareness of the existence of the documents and their importance, provincial Liberal, NDP and PC governments across Canada have made them public. Only Quebec and now Ontario have chosen not to release them. Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe is the only current premier who does not give his minister’s formal mandate letters.