Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Peter Wallace, the head of Ontario’s public service, holds up a blacked-out document as he answers question from MPPs during a committee hearing on March 19, 2013, looking into the cancellation of two gas plants.

MOE DOIRON/The Globe and Mail

Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies