27 January 2012

The old cabinet documents ploy #nlpoli #cdnpoli

Premier Kathy Dunderdale and her ministers refuse to hand over documents on more than $5.0 billion in public works spending by the Conservatives since 2004.

The documents are cabinet secrets, as their argument goes, and under the access to information law cabinet cannot release that information to him.

like her predecessor, Premier Dunderdale was unavailable to talk to reporters earlier on Thursday but she did have time to call an open line radio show to talk about the Auditor General and other things.  Dunderdale eventually turned up at a 2:00 PM scrum to take reporters questions.  Predictably she rejected any claims that she is withholding information improperly.

Here’s one bit, as relayed by CBC:

Every piece of information that comes in to government is available to the auditor general. It's just the preparation of material used specifically for the preparation of cabinet documents is not available.

Elsewhere in the scrum Dunderdale explained that the Auditor General had others ways to get the information he needed.  When asked to explain that by reporters, she couldn’t.  Dunderdale also admitted that there was actually no infrastructure strategy.  Instead there were documents prepared for cabinet that gave a complete overview of the government’s capital works spending.

But anyway,  by her own account, therefore, that’s the sort of thing that the Auditor General wouldn’t be allowed to see. The AG wanted to look at a strategy and assess the performance.  By Dunderdale’s account there’d be no way he could see what was included in the non-existent strategy and what wasn’t.

Sounds foolish.

And it is foolish.

It’s also familiar.

In 2006, Danny Williams and his cabinet (including Kathy Dunderdale) took exactly the same position when another Auditor General asked for documents on the fibre optic project. 

No way, they said:  cabinet documents. 

Secret, don’t you know, old chap. 

Access to information law and all that, what what.

Now in that instance the government  - through a resolution in the House of Assembly – asked the AG to “investigate all the details and circumstances” of the controversial deal.  That’s really no different than the AG doing the job he got from a law passed by the House of Assembly (the Auditor General Act).

Same situation.

Same effort to hide information.

And ultimately, cabinet’s excuses are still just as flimsy.

Your humble e-scribbler pointed out in 2006 that cabinet can use its own discretion and release any documents it likes. They did it in 2004 and, eventually, Williams and cabinet relented with the fibre optic review and gave the AG what he needed. 

Now it took four months, mind you, for them to do the right thing.  But after lots of public pressure, Williams and his cabinet reversed their stand.  In effect, Williams and his cabinet (including Kathy Dunderdale) admitted the argument they’d used the year before was utter bullshit.

Just to be sure, folks, what we are talking about here is just provincial capital works spending dolled up as something much grander than it ever was. They called it “infrastructure” but essentially it was – and is – the sort of road building, road paving, schools building and all the other capital works that government shave done for decades.

And Auditors General before the current one have had no problem looking at the documents, totalling up the amounts, checking the way things were done and then reporting what they’ve found.

Until now.

For some reason Kathy Dunderdale and her cabinet want to keep a giant chunk of  public works spending over the past eight years away from the Auditor General and his Excel spreadsheet.

The question is why.

Maybe it has something to do with what the AG did get to look at. The Labrador Highway and public publics repairs chapters don’t make for pretty reading. 

Maybe it has something to do with just how much political consideration goes into public works decisions like road paving.

Maybe it has something to do with what SRBP already noted about capital works under the Tories.  So much of the “stimulus” and the infrastructure program was nothing more than regular public works spending announced and re-announced and announced over again.  Through it all, though, it appears that massive cost over-runs and inexplicable delays measured in years are routine for government public works projects. 

Some of the most embarrassing of the administrative messes cost the provincial government a cabinet minister in 2009. Remember the Lewisporte and Fleur de Lys health care centres and Paul Oram? That was about capital works decision-making within one of the departments that refused to turn over documents to the Auditor General.

Whatever the reason, one thing is clear:  early on in his tenure, while Danny Williams could keep up the old cabinet documents ploy for six months, six years later, the public won’t put up with that sort of political tomfoolery any more from any one.

- srbp -