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Canada Ontario budget watchdog says Liberals are blocking his access to info

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks in Edmonton on May 26, 2016.

CODIE MCLACHLAN/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Ontario's Liberal government is hiding important financial information, making it hard to check whether the province's budget projections are true, according to the province's independent watchdog.

Financial Accountability Officer Stephen LeClair said Tuesday that, despite Premier Kathleen Wynne's promise to turn Ontario into Canada's "most open and transparent" province, government officials are receiving "political direction" to stonewall him.

"They are saying that they're an 'open government,' and I'm saying 'Well, let's have the information to show that you are open,'" he told a Queen's Park news conference.

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Among other things, the Liberals are keeping secret the data behind future spending and revenue projections, he said. For instance, the government claims it will hold future health-care spending to a 1.9-per-cent annual increase, but refuses to give Mr. LeClair the numbers to show how it will do this, he said.

Budget balance is a sensitive topic for the Liberals. They promised in the last election to erase the deficit by fiscal year 2017-18. But Mr. LeClair has pointed out that the government will likely only achieve that goal through one-time revenue from asset sales – such as the privatization of Hydro One – before falling back into deficit again afterward.

Mr. LeClair said the province is hiding behind "cabinet confidentiality," a principle that says deliberations of cabinet must be kept secret.

But government officials, Mr. LeClair said, have applied the principle far too broadly and are using it to cover up information on such routine things as the background information for legislation.

"There is no exception to my access to information that would prevent me from accessing information concerning a bill before the legislature," Mr. LeClair said, adding later: "Once a decision has been made I should get that background analysis, so that I can assess the validity of it."

If the government doesn't shape up its act over the summer, Mr. LeClair said he will consider making a formal complaint to the Speaker.

Finance Minister Charles Sousa said the problem is that "some ministries are working differently than others," and that he put out an order to apply consistent standards in dealing with Mr. LeClair's requests.

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"Our officials are now going to be sharing information," he said "We put a directive why to the officials to ensure that we work collaboratively with the FAO, and we try. This is evolving."

Mr. Sousa denied that politicians had interfered to stop Mr. LeClair from receiving information: "No, that's not true. That's not how it works."

But when asked if Mr. Sousa's ministry will now start giving Mr. LeClair more of the information he is looking for, Mr. Sousa dodged the question.

"We want to work with the FAO," he said.

NDP finance critic Catherine Fife said she will introduce a private member's bill to expand Mr. LeClair's power and give him access to cabinet documents. The province's auditor-general currently has this power, but the financial accountability officer does not.

"The fact that this government is using political direction to prevent an independent officer of the legislature from doing his job is of great concern to us, and the people of this province," Ms. Fife told reporters. "I have to bring in a piece of legislation to ensure that Kathleen Wynne is open and transparent."

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The Financial Accountability Office was created in 2013 as part of a budget deal between the Liberals and the NDP: In exchange for the NDP voting in favour of the then-minority Liberals' budget and avoiding a snap election, the Liberals agreed to create the FAO.

Like other independent officers of the legislature – such as the auditor-general, the ombudsman and the environment commissioner – the FAO is chosen by a committee of three MPPs, one from each party, and answers directly to the legislature rather than to the government.

Ms. Fife said that, in 2013, the NDP didn't realize the extent to which the Liberals would try to stonewall the FAO.

"This was the 'open and transparent [government]' – I don't think that even we thought that there would be such strong political direction to prevent and obstruct an independent officer from doing his job," Ms. Fife said.

Progressive Conservative finance critic Vic Fedeli said the government's promise to balance the budget is "a charade" and that is why they are stonewalling Mr. LeClair.

"There's an opportunity here for the government to use one-time asset sales to artificially balance the budget, and then, in his own words, they will plummet back into deficit," he said. "So it's all a charade, it's absolutely not open and transparent. It's a charade to lead us into the next election."

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Mr. Fedeli said that if the PCs win the next election they will give the FAO access to cabinet documents.

"You'll see a government that allows the FAO to do his job as he's expected to do and not do what the Liberals are doing, by impeding him from getting to the true answers," he said.

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