How Canada's governments hide information

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald

From the federal government to provincial governments, the tendency to hide information taxpayers have bought and paid for seems all too common. Regardless of the party label, few governments give up information that is potentially embarrassing without a fight.

In Alberta, the most recent example came courtesy of the University of Calgary which allegedly contravened the provincial Elections Act by donating money to the governing Progressive Conservatives. In that instance, the University’s former general counsel Charlene Anderson wrote in an internal e-mail that she thought the practice was illegal and is unacceptable.

That revelation came in addition to earlier reports that Brian Fjeldheim, Alberta’s Chief Electoral Officer, found at least 41 questionable donations from other taxpayer-funded bodies to the ruling party. Regrettably, Fjeldheim has pointed out that he cannot release specific information on those donations because provincial law forbids it.

The law and its’ idiosyncrasies are the creation of the current provincial government, which at present is ruled by the party that benefitted from the 41 possible illegal donations. That is a self-enclosed loop of secret-keeping and non-accountability.

Alberta’s government is not alone in the tendency to block the release of information that is less-than-flattering to the ruling party. Federal Conservatives have acted the same way on other files.

In Access to Information requests I’ve filed over the years, I’ve noticed that they rarely come back quickly. One recent request for the simple 16-page cost-sharing agreement between the federal and Ontario governments on the 2009 automotive bailout took five months to obtain, this after an additional two months of informal requests to Ottawa and Queen’s Park. The disclosure took that long even though the agreement contained nothing that could infringe upon someone’s personal privacy or would endanger national security.

It is even rarer when such information requests come back complete. Most often, especially on repayment records for companies that have taken out loans from government, such information is blacked out. The responding government letters always note that sections of federal legislation prohibit disclosure of certain confidential financial information. Of course, such information is confidential because the government wrote the law that way, presumably because a lack of repayments by multiple companies might be looked on unfavourably by the general public or be seen as a subsidy by competitors. The law could and should be changed to provide more transparency.

The federal government (under Conservatives and Liberals alike) has always been lousy at disclosing repayment records on taxpayer loans to businesses. However, after 2009, the Conservatives were happy to roll out a plethora of announcements on every dollar and dime in taxpayer-funded lolly for this or that stimulus project. Initially, on stimulus spending, the Conservative government reported to Parliament every three months but that was merely to detail the goodies disbursed.

What was invariably missing was accurate accounting for money to be paid back. In this, Canadian government reporting is distinctly inferior to how the American federal government reports to its taxpayers. There, under terms agreed to by the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress, and which continues in the Obama years, the U.S. Treasury department publicly reports monthly on the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

So, anyone with access to a web browser can see which financial institution or automotive company received tax dollars, how much and what, if anything, has been paid back.

For example, in the latest TARP report from May, American taxpayers can see that under TARP, GM received $51 billion, repaid $23.2 billion, that $4.4 billion was categorized as a loss, and that the U.S. government still expects $23.4 billion to be repaid.

In contrast, Canada’s federal Finance department produces no such monthly report to Parliament with such a breakdown and never has.

That means taxpayers either have no idea, or have the wrong idea about how such Canadian stimulus programs, or any others, turn out. For instance, in late May 2011 Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced that Chrysler Canada had repaid its stimulus-era government loans in full, six years ahead of schedule.

But that was incorrect, as even Flaherty was forced to acknowledge in response to a reporter’s question two days later at a press conference. Then, the Finance Minister noted Chrysler had paid back just $1.7 billion out of $2.9 billion in loans. The remaining $1.2 billion was owed from the old, pre-bankrupt Chrysler. That meant $1.2 billion would never be repaid.

If taxpayers want clear, consistent and full disclosure on how Canadian government loans to Chrysler and GM played out, in a manner akin to U.S. reporting, or want information on additional corporate welfare, or on illegal donations made to a government party in Alberta, they will find Canadian governments act rather clam-like in response to demands for information that should always be publicly available.

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