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WAYNE YOUNG: Document release may be embarrassing

Suzanne Legault announced this summer she would not re-apply to keep her job as national information commissioner.
(CP Photo)
Suzanne Legault announced this summer she would not re-apply to keep her job as national information commissioner. (CP Photo)

Taxpayer’s have a right to know how our tax dollars are being spent. It’s essential.

It wasn’t the first time Bev Oda had been accused of splurging on the taxpayers’ dime.

But when she put a single, $16 glass of orange juice on her government tab, it left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.

Oda was a minister in the Stephen Harper government when, in 2011, she racked up extra bills at a London conference by upgrading her lodgings from a five-star hotel and chartering a pricey limousine service to get there. She later reimbursed taxpayers for the extra expenses – including the $16 juice.

Her lavish spending habits only came to light because of the paper trail that was generated and Access to Information, a federal law that allows Canadians, for a $5 fee, to apply for records controlled by the federal government.

The service isn’t always swift but it’s often worth the wait.

Last week, for example, Blacklock’s Reporter – a publication that bills itself as the only reporter-owned and operated newsroom in Ottawa – used ATI to publicize the jaw-dropping cost of the cover design for the 2017 federal budget – $212,234. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau happily posed with the budget and its pricey cover, which featured four models posing as middle-class Canadians.

They should have been embarrassed.

ATI isn’t always about money, though, and it’s not always reporters seeking the information.

On P.E.I., the Progressive Conservatives recently obtained email exchanges between two former chiefs of staff to then Premier Robert Ghiz. They used provincial legislation known as FOIPP (Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy). The subject line in one of the 2012 emails was “war stories and other lies,” and it featured some candid observations on the job from Chris LeClair to his successor, Allan Campbell. The emails, while likely embarrassing to the governing Liberals, were five years old and quickly shrugged off by the current premier’s office staff.

Still, it should serve as a reminder that paper trails like this are accessible to any Islander who has an interest in how decision-makers are spending our money.

Well, almost all. Municipal governments and post-secondary institutions in P.E.I. are still not covered by FOIPP, a situation that really should be remedied sooner rather than later. Having access to specific documents from city hall could help media outlets like The Guardian dig even deeper into stories like the one it broke this week on internal strife at Charlottetown’s city hall and what, if any role, high-ranking officials may be playing in it.

Of course, there’s no guarantee a FOI request would generate any useful information. Documents aren’t always made available right away. The budget cover documents weren’t released for six months. And not infrequently, when documents that could be useful are released, they’re heavily redacted for reasons that don’t always seem valid.

Trudeau promised in the last election campaign to make government more open and accountable and to modernize and reform ATI. To date, however, little has been done.

“Sadly, champions for transparency are absent,” information commissioner Suzanne Legault lamented in her annual report last summer.

So while there seems to be lots of time and money to produce a quarter-of-a-million dollar cover for its annual budget, the federal government doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to improve transparency by reforming ATI.

That’s disappointing because taxpayer’s have a right to know how our tax dollars are being spent. It’s essential.

- Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown

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