26 January 2012

Tories hide spending documents from Auditor General #nlpoli

The culture of secrecy that is Danny Williams’ legacy in provincial politics is firmly institutionalised. The provincial Conservative’s war against oversight and adequate oversight of their management of the province’s finances now extends to withholding information from the province’s Auditor General.

When the province’s Auditor General went looking for the Conservative’s oft-mentioned infrastructure strategy, he found out they didn’t have one.  You’ll find that gem in the first few pages of the latest report from the Auditor General on how the provincial government spends public money.

A committee of officials was supposed to develop the strategy.  While they didn’t do that, according to the AG, the group did produce a draft “report”.  But the draft report was never finalized.

When the auditor general’s officials started contacting departments to get information on capital works spending, they ran smack into a legal roadblock. The departments refused to release the information to the Auditor General and cited the provincial Access to Information Act as justification. The documents would reveal cabinet deliberations  according to justice department lawyers, and as such they couldn’t turn them over to the Auditor general.

The access to information laws were never intended to cover officials like the Auditor General.  You can tell that because of the way the law is worded.  The purpose of the Act is to make public bodies more accountable to the public by providing the rules under which the public may obtain information held by government and its agencies.

Members of the public – known as applicants in the Act – apply as set out in Section 8. Under section 18, heads of department must refuse to disclose cabinet documents to applicants. 

But the Auditor General?  Not a person as defined by the Act or an ordinary member of the public.

As such there wouldn’t be a conflict between the access law and the Auditor General Act.

The AG’s got his own legal opinions and they pretty much wind up in the same place:  there’s no legal reason for the provincial government to hide information from the AG. Unfortunately, he and his lawyers have taken the weak premise of accepting that the access law actually governs the AG in the first place.

And all the AG has done is filed a report with the Tory-dominated House of Assembly.  That might make the upcoming session interesting and tense but it doesn’t settle the legal issues.  The AG needs to take it downtown and drag the attorney general in front of a judge.

Now this is not the first time the provincial government has misused the access laws to keep information from the public or other officials.  In fact, the current administration is notorious for its efforts to hide information from the public. Around these parts, SRBP likes to call it freedom from information.

In fact, in the seven years SRBP has been around, this sort of stuff is part for the course.

No strategy.

No documents.

No audit.

No surprise.

- srbp -