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Senate Liberal, MPs slamming feds for not living up to transparency promises

By Peter Mazereeuw      

The public service must ‘get with the program’ outlined by the PM, says Senate Liberal Percy Downe.

From left: Senate Liberal whip Percy Downe, Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj; Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre. Sen. Downe has called out the public service for not being transparent, Mr. Poilievre is accusing the government of blocking the release of information on the carbon tax, and Mr. Wrzesnewskyj chairs a committee that summoned departmental leaders to explain their failure to provide it with information it had requested. The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright
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The government isn’t living up to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise to make its information “open by default,” say a handful of Parliamentarians from different parties.

MPs and a Senate Liberal are crying foul after being denied information they had requested from Global Affairs Canada; the Canada Revenue Agency; Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada; and Finance Canada in recent months.

The Parliamentarians raised the issue through press releases, at committee, and in a motion in the House in recent weeks. Each called for the government to make public, or provide to them, information it so far had not, though they differed on who was to blame for the secrecy.

Senate Liberal Percy Downe, who is fighting for information from two federal departments, pointed to the public service.

“The public service default position is secrecy and privacy, and it’s shocking to me that many departments continue to ignore the prime minister’s directive,” he told The Hill Times.

Sen. Downe was referring to a pledge included in the mandate letter for each Liberal minister, which says, “Government and its information should be open by default. If we want Canadians to trust their government, we need a government that trusts Canadians.”

Sen. Downe has asked the Canada Revenue Agency to release information on the “tax gap,” the amount of tax money it has been unable to collect because of overseas tax-avoidance schemes. The agency has refused, and Sen. Downe called it out in a March 6 press release on the issue.

Sen. Downe is also looking for information about the government’s visa policy for Mexico. He asked a pair of high-ranking bureaucrats from Global Affairs Canada to say how many asylum claims from Mexico the government would accept before it reimposed a visa requirement for that country, during a meeting of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade last month.

The Liberal government eliminated its visa requirement for Mexico in December. A June report by the Globe and Mail said that the government had decided its limit was 3,500 claims within a 12-month period before it reimposed the visa. When Mr. Downe asked assistant deputy minister David Morrison to confirm or deny that number, he said he couldn’t confirm it. He said the number hasn’t been made public.

Sen. Downe asked Mr. Morrison to alert Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.) that he would ask her the same question the next time she appeared to testify before the committee. He quoted the line in Ms. Freeland’s mandate letter about making information open by default to the witnesses.

“Given that context, I think Canadians deserve to know if the number is 3,500 before we reinforce visas in Mexico, or higher, or whatever it is. And I’ll be asking the minister for that number,” said Sen. Downe, who serves as the whip of the Senate Liberal caucus.

When asked why Sen. Downe was not provided the information he sought, Global Affairs Canada referred the question to Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, which oversees the government’s visa policy. IRCC did not respond by deadline.

Canada Revenue Agency spokesperson David Walters wrote that the agency was still working to produce an accurate estimate of the tax gap.

Sen. Downe said calling out the departments as he did “reinforces the prime minister’s message. And the bureaucracy has to learn that it’s a new government, and they have a more transparent and open policy. And really get with the program.”   

‘Disregard’ for committee

Members of Parliament are also taking issue with stonewalling or slow delivery of documents by departments.

The House Immigration Committee, chaired by Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj (Etobicoke Centre, Ont.) and with a majority of Liberal members, called in officials from IRCC last month to explain why they hadn’t provided the committee with information it needed for one of its studies.

The committee agreed during its Feb. 6 meeting, held in private, to summon IRCC deputy minister Marta Morgan and assistant deputy minister Robert Orr “in order to address the department’s disregard for the timelines of undertakings committed to during the committee’s study on family reunification.”

The missing information was “frustrating” and “distracting” to the committee, Liberal MP Ali Ehsassi (Willowdale, Ont.), said during its next meeting, at which Ms. Morgan and Mr. Orr testified.

Mr. Ehsassi asked the officials to describe what systems were in place in the department to make sure committees get information when they ask for it, but Mr. Wrzesnewskyj said that procedural question was outside of the scope of what the committee was there to study—namely, family reunification.

It was not clear what information the committee was seeking from IRCC.

Liberal MP Julie Dzerowicz (Davenport, Ont.), a member of the committee, said the missing information did not prevent the committee from producing an “excellent” report on family reunification.

When asked if she thought the public service had gotten Mr. Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) message about making information open by default, Ms. Dzerowicz said, “I hope so.”

The immigration department didn’t respond by deadline when asked why it didn’t provide the committee with the information it wanted in the time it expected.

Carbon tax, drug pricing info withheld

Opposition MPs have also complained about being denied information by departments, though they have placed the blame at the feet of the Liberal cabinet.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre (Carleton, Ont.) tabled a motion in the House last month reminding the government of Mr. Trudeau’s open-by-default instruction to his ministers, and calling on the House to request a copy of documents that estimate the cost to the public of the government’s mandated carbon tax for the provinces.

Mr. Poilievre received those documents from Finance Canada—and posted them to his Facebook page—after filing an access to information request, but the relevant information appears to be redacted by the department, which invoked exemptions in the Access to Information Act for accounts of “deliberations” between government employees.

The House rejected Mr. Poilievre’s motion to make the documents public, and he launched an online petition calling on the government to release them. He has also filed a complaint with the federal access to information commissioner, he told The Hill Times.

Mr. Poilievre accused the government of political interference in the release of the information in the documents.

Annie Donolo, a spokesperson for Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.), wrote in an emailed statement that the public service manages access to information requests, and has a duty to withhold information that falls under some provisions within the Access to Information Act.

NDP MP Tracey Ramsey (Essex, Ont.) has also fought to get a hold of internal government cost estimates, in her case those relating to projected higher pharmaceutical costs in Canada as a result of patent-term restoration, granted via Canada’s trade deal with the EU, the CETA.

Patent-term restoration essentially gives brand-name pharmaceutical companies longer patents for drugs they create, delaying the dip in pricing that comes once generic drug companies get the right to copy and sell those drugs.

Health Canada provided the information to the Parliamentary Budget Officer in March 2015, with the caveat that “some of the data is confidential and must not be publicly released without the prior consent of its owners.”

Ms. Ramsey sparred with Ms. Freeland, then the minister for international trade, when she appeared before the House Trade Committee in December.

Ms. Ramsey asked Ms. Freeland if the government had information on the impact of the CETA on drug prices, and if she could provide it to the committee, eight times over a span of six minutes.

Ms. Freeland did not directly answer those questions, but noted that drug provisions in the CETA would not come into full effect for eight years, that Health Minister Jane Philpott (Markham-Stouffville, Ont.) was examining drug pricing in general, and that she did not believe that “our drug pricing issues are chiefly around trade agreements.”

peter@hilltimes.com

@PJMazereeuw

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