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Unearthed this week by the opposition Progressive Conservatives, stark warnings by civil servants about the state of Ontario's finances offered the latest cause for alarm about whether the governing Liberals have a legitimate plan to get the province out of deficit.
But while that would certainly be the main concern for most Ontarians (if they took notice of the story at all amid horrific tragedy in Quebec and flooding in Toronto), there's another angle that is causing some angst around Queen's Park and in the civil service.
For government to function well, it's important for politicians and senior bureaucrats to be able to have frank discussions behind closed doors. And if there's a positive to be drawn from the documents released this week, it's that such conversations seem to have been happening. Draft notes for a 2011 cabinet briefing by Peter Wallace, then the deputy finance minister and now the head of the Ontario Public Service, show him offering strongly worded criticism of the government's "fantastical" fiscal plan; somewhat milder briefing notes from more recently call for much more ambitious spending cuts than have been undertaken thus far.
Had they known that their words would eventually be part of the public discourse, the civil servants probably would have been a lot more circumspect. And that raises the question of what impact an ongoing push for public disclosure might have.
Nearly two years into Ontario's experiment with minority government, the province's opposition parties seem to have realized that they can use the legislative committee system to demand just about any documents they want. The Liberals largely have themselves to blame for this; by taking a highly obstructionist approach to the committees after being re-elected in 2011, all but refusing to acknowledge they had lost their majority, they pushed the Tories and New Democrats to get more creative.
The result has arguably been very good opposition work that has flushed out information damaging to the government, notably when it comes to the never-ending controversy around the cancellation of power plants. This week's revelations certainly have value as well, with Mr. Wallace's comments helping confirm that the Liberals (and for that matter the other two parties as well) glossed over the tough decisions ahead during the last campaign.
There is a creeping sense, though, that everything is now on the record. While the fiscal memos were somehow released as part of the power-plant document dump demanded by the Justice committee, it is a safe bet that other committees – Finance, for instance – will now press hard for more where those came from.
That could make it harder for the government to lean on the civil service to generate policy ideas. This spring, the Tories stumbled onto a memo floating various new user fees and other potential "non-tax revenues." Most of the proposals were rejected, and it could be chalked up to a healthy (or at least harmless) brainstorming exercise. But it provided enough fodder to make bureaucrats think twice about committing such thoughts to paper in future.
Meanwhile, if cabinet presentations are effectively now part of the public domain, those submissions – and the cabinet meetings themselves – might become a lot more guarded. That could lead to a more centralized decision-making process, with fewer challenges toward the Premier's office.
Of course, this week's findings and other revelations about what's said in private would be less salacious if the government were more open in public. Given the yawning gap between the advice the Liberals were receiving and what they were telling Ontarians, it's in the public interest to learn more about the former.
The opposition parties, though, are in the midst of challenging cabinet and civil service secrecy in a way it has rarely if ever been challenged before. As they continue their treasure hunt, they should be careful about just how far they go in changing the culture of a support structure that they themselves hope to one day rely upon.
Adam Radwanski is a columnist covering Ontario politics.