For a moment, one could sympathize a little with the Liberal government’s complaint that an opposition motion demanding documents on the handling of the pandemic wanted too much material in too little time. Then Liberal cabinet ministers started making shockingly irresponsible arguments for blanket secrecy.
After that unedifying display, we should all be happy that the House of Commons has just ordered Justin Trudeau’s government to show and tell. The Liberals showed derision for the public’s right to know, and tried to use a crisis to dismiss it.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu gave us a taste of the attitude last week when she responded to the opposition’s complaints that the government hasn’t disclosed documents about its pandemic response by saying that no Canadian had asked her to provide more resources for access to information.
Ha ha. Isn’t that witty? We’re in a pandemic, so people are worried about survival, and incomes, and whether they can safely visit their grandmother. It’s only politicians, and journalists, and a few rabble-rousers and wonky geeks who care about the finicky details in government documents. Good one.
Back in March, it was understandable that access-to-information workers weren’t considered essential, so requests for documents were delayed. Seven months later, the government of Canada should have figured it out. It’s essential, even if Liberal ministers don’t think their voters care.
Initially, the Liberals had some reason to complain about all the documents the opposition is demanding. Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner put forward a motion asking for every document in a long list of pandemic-response areas, to be delivered in 15 days. But in the end, the motion was amended to allow the government a little more time, till Nov. 30.
Of course, you’d expect the government to plead for a few exceptions. Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand argued that disclosing details of seven contracts with vaccine makers could jeopardize them. The U.S. government released its contract with vaccine maker Moderna last week, but if there are a handful of cases the Canadian government needs to keep under wraps for a time, or if specific technical secrets should be withheld, that’s reasonable. In fact, the opposition motion called for the documents to be vetted for disclosures that would harm national security or contract negotiations.
What was really worrisome was that Ms. Anand was not making the case for a few specific exceptions. She was arguing that secrecy should be the rule, with disclosures dribbled out by government. (However, she pointed to information on her department’s website that lacks crucial details.) She said releasing contracts for personal protective equipment like masks, or for rapid tests kits, would “jeopardize” them. She warned companies that tooled up to make pandemic supplies might not the next time. She said manufacturers complained.
And that is a crock.
It is the same crock that Ms. Anand’s department, Public Services and Procurement Canada, has been using to stymie freedom-of-information requests for decades, often at the request of companies that don’t want to reveal such things as the price of the things they sold to Ottawa.
Sure, companies might not want their prices disclosed, but the public absolutely requires it. It is the most basic form of government transparency. Without it, there is an invitation to waste, mismanagement and corruption.
Courts have recognized this. A 1994 decision of the Federal Court of Canada asserted that as a rule, companies have to expect that the terms of a contract with the government, particularly the monetary terms, will be disclosed to the public.
“The public’s right to know how government spends public funds as a means of holding government accountable for its expenditures is a fundamental notion of responsible government that is known to all,” Federal Court Justice Simon Noël wrote then.
Yet PSPC still often blacks out prices in contacts it discloses under access-to-information. It still acts as if that information belongs to companies, and maybe the Crown, but not the public. That’s wrong.
Now the minister responsible for public procurement sounds as if she thinks that way, too. Don Davies, the New Democrat MP health critic, described her warnings of doom as “wildly exaggerated.” He’s right.
So if you felt a moment of sympathy for a government asked to dig up documents in a crisis, let it go. A government that shows this kind of disrespect for public disclosure has to be told it’s their duty.
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