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Ottawa keeps tight lid on airport-privatization report details, its costs

The government remains coy about whether it will privatize Canada’s airports — which would raise billions in new revenue.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Finance Minister Bill Morneau will not be releasing the results of a federally commissioned study on airport privatization, nor will the government reveal how much it paid Credit Suisse AG to conduct the review.

Mr. Morneau's department confirmed Tuesday that Ottawa agreed to give the Swiss investment bank a veto on the release of any information related to the study, which it was hired last fall to conduct.

Mr. Morneau and Transport Minister Marc Garneau have remained coy over the past year as to whether the Liberal government will privatize Canada's airports. The move would raise billions in new revenue for the federal government, but critics warn it could lead to higher prices and less service for air travellers over the longer term.

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Editorial: Privatization isn't the only way to fix problems at Canada's airports

This week, the government refused a written request from the Conservative Party to disclose the cost of the contract, even though the work ended on Jan. 31, 2017. The Conservatives also asked the government to reveal the findings of the study. The government rejected the request, citing provisions of the Access to Information Act that allow officials to refuse the release of information that could harm Canada's economic interests, the financial and commercial interests of a third party or that would reveal cabinet secrets.

Finance Department spokesperson Jack Aubry told The Globe and Mail that releasing the cost of the Credit Suisse contract could hurt the company financially, given that it conducts similar studies for other clients.

Mr. Aubry said the contract specifically states that no terms can be released without the consent of Credit Suisse. The company confirmed in follow-up conversations with the government that it does not support the release of the terms of the contract, including the cost, or its advice to government.

A similar study of options for privatizing federally owned sea ports, conducted by Morgan Stanley and announced in November, is subject to similar confidentiality conditions, the department said.

Conservative MP Kelly Block, who requested the information, said the government's response suggests airport privatization continues to be on the table. She also said the government's decision not to release the study or its cost goes against Liberal promises of openness and transparency.

In the run-up to the 2015 federal election, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau promised to "raise the bar on transparency and accountability" and that government data and information would be "open by default."

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The issue of privatization has divided Canada's airports. Airport authorities in Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver are strongly opposed to the idea, while officials at Toronto's Pearson airport have expressed interest. Partial privatization of Pearson is being proposed as a potential option to raise billions in capital that could be put toward public transit projects that would turn the airport into a "megahub" for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area as well as Southwestern Ontario.

Mark Laroche, president and chief executive of the Ottawa International Airport Authority, said he can understand the need for privacy given that Credit Suisse would be privy to commercially sensitive information that could become relevant in the event that the federal government moves ahead with some form of airport privatization.

Nonetheless, Mr. Laroche said he expressed concerns about the thoroughness of the Credit Suisse review. He said the Credit Suisse team held a roughly two-hour conference call with Ottawa airport executives and there was no in-person visit by Credit Suisse that he witnessed.

He also noted the government's decision to hire Credit Suisse, which has a history of consulting on airport privatizations, suggests a bias in favour of selling off the airports.

"If the government is looking to get a report that recommends privatization, Credit Suisse would certainly be an adviser that they would consider," he said.

Craig Richmond, CEO of the Vancouver Airport Authority, said he met with Credit Suisse officials directly, but declined to provide them with any commercially sensitive information.

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Mr. Richmond said he was pleased to see that Mr. Morneau's March 22 budget did not include a pledge in favour of airport privatization.

"Now I think we have time to actually sit back as a country and say, 'What do we want to do with these great assets?'" he said. "Let's make a rational decision on this and not something rushed to get a big cheque [that] you get one time for selling the furniture."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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