The Information and Privacy Commissioner released her report on the gas plant documents today. The report, which documents “indiscriminate email deletion in Ontario cabinet ministers’ offices”, is a stunning indictment of the McGuinty government’s cover-up of its gas plant decisions.
Here is a short excerpt from near the end of the report illustrating the depth of the rot. I believe that one of the FOI requests referred to in the second full sentence of this passage is the one reported in Part 43 of this series.
Issue 6: Was there a culture of avoiding the creation of written documentation on
the gas plants issue?
It is truly troubling and hard to believe, quite frankly, that there is any reasonable explanation
for the fact that the Minister of Energy’s office could produce absolutely no records in response
to the Speaker’s ruling. The same comment applies to the former Premier’s office having so few
records that were responsive to two freedom of information requests touching on these decisions.
For example, with the media attention focused on these issues, one would have expected, at
a minimum, that documents would have been generated within the Premier’s office and the
Ministers’ communications team relating to these stories.
In our interviews with MacLennan and the staff in the Premier’s office, we learned that there
was definitely a “verbal culture” in these political offices relating to the gas plant closures.
We were told by MacLennan and Livingston that while there were frequent in-person meetings
with the various players involved on the gas plants file, the only information that would generally
be captured in writing would be an email proposing a meeting. MacLennan explained that the
Minister’s office was a “very verbal office.” He would encourage his staff to talk through an issue
face-to-face, instead of using a form of written documentation. We were told that the former
Minister’s office kept a particularly hectic pace and that staff were always trying to manage
high-profile issues and “put out fires.” He candidly stated that records management would have
been one of the last things on the minds of political staff.
This verbal culture may have been prevalent within the former Premier’s office as well. Livingston
stated that meetings were held every morning but no notes were ever taken. In his view, verbal
communications were sufficient and there was no need to document the information exchanged.
Here is the Commissioner’s closing message for the report:
I do not need to emphasize how disturbing the intentional deletion of government business
records is in a free and democratic society. As I have stated in this Report, the practice of deleting
records undermines the very foundation of freedom of information legislation, and the principles
of government transparency and accountability that the legislation supports. I am reminded of
the comment made by the Honourable Ian Scott, the Attorney General of Ontario, between
1985 and 1990, on the introduction of Ontario’s FIPPA in the Legislature. He stated:
We do not, and never will, accept the proposition that the business of the public
is none of the public’s business.
As my Report indicates, I find it very difficult to believe that there was a credible reason for
the former Minister of Energy’s Office not retaining any records that were responsive to either
the Estimates Committee motion or the Speaker’s ruling. The reasons I have been provided for
staff keeping a “clean inbox,” namely – concerns about their email account reaching its capacity,
are not convincing. I am disappointed that, despite strong freedom of information laws and
comprehensive records retention schedules, senior political staff in the former Minister of Energy’s
office did not feel inclined to preserve government business records, nor did staff in the former
Premier’s office take steps to ensure that their email management practices were consistent with
the Archives and Recordkeeping Act. In this day and age, ignorance is no excuse. Transparency
of government activities, reflected in their records, is essential to freedom and liberty.
The citizens of Ontario owe a debt of gratitude on this issue not just to the Information and Privacy Commissioner, Ann Ann Cavoukian, but also to MPP Peter Tabuns of the NDP for lodging the complaint that initiated this report.