Financial accountability officer says Ontario Liberals block his access to info

 

TORONTO – Ontario’s financial accountability officer says the Liberal government is telling ministries to block information he needs to assess their budget forecasts and program costs and help the opposition parties do their jobs.

“I am of the opinion that the government is invoking the cabinet records exception in relation to too wide a range of information,” Stephen LeClair said Tuesday.

All the ministries argue that virtually any projection concerning provincial revenue and spending is a cabinet record and can’t be released, added LeClair.

“From Day 1 they’ve claimed cabinet confidences on almost any future projection,” he said.

“They’ve also claimed things that are not rationales that are allowed for them, and we’re having discussions so they now realize they can’t claim those things.”

LeClair said the ministries are getting instructed on how to interpret so-called cabinet confidences, adding he doesn’t know “the source or rationale” for the directions to block his access to information.

“The letters I receive back are from deputy ministers,” he said. “However, I believe that this is political direction on how to interpret cabinet confidences.”

LeClair said the lack of information means he can’t tell if the Liberals’ plan to limit the growth in health spending to just 1.8 per cent annually can be achieved, or if Ontario will get $1.9 billion a year from cap-and-trade revenue as they forecast.

“Ministries have raised a number of other purported justifications for denying my office access to information, suggesting, for example, that it is commercially sensitive,” he said.

“That sensitivity does not take precedence over my clear power to access information I need to perform the economic and financial analysis my mandate requires me to provide MPPs.”

Finance Minister Charles Sousa insisted the Liberals did not give political direction to ministries to block LeClair’s access to information, and said the FAO’s requests are not handled by political staff but by non-partisan government officials.

“We respect the work that the financial accountability officer does for our province,” Sousa told the legislature.

“We will be sending a government-wide directive to all offices to ensure that offices are responding to the FAO in a consistent and timely manner.”

NDP finance critic Catherine Fife introduced a private member’s bill to give the financial accountability officer the same powers as the auditor general “so that Kathleen Wynne can’t stand in the way of this independent officer of the legislature.”

Fife said the FAO should be able to compel documents and information from the government.

“It was the NDP who negotiated the (creation of) the financial accountability office,” she said. “We knew that this government was making assumptions around its budget numbers that were completely inaccurate.”

Progressive Conservative finance critic Vic Fedeli said LeClair’s belief that ministries are getting political direction not to co-operate is unbelievable.

“Will the premier end this pattern of obstruction and give the FAO the necessary documents to do his job,” Fedeli asked during question period.

“This government is neither open nor transparent.”

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