The gas scandal inquiry at Queen’s Park has called forth a long parade of Liberal politicians and political staffers claiming that they had angelic intentions in covering up the gas scandal documents ordered released by the Speaker of the Legislature. Complying with the Speaker’s order would have exposed the Ontario public to extra costs, sings this choir. Reaching for a box of Liberal Kleenex, witness after witness has wept over the torment heaped so unfairly by the callus Opposition on former Energy Minister Chris Bentley. Yes he was ordered to disclose but (sniff, sob) this “most honourable man” any Liberal knows fought valiantly until the end to shield ratepayers from harm.
This maudlin story has a credibility problem. With every element of their electricity policy — most egregiously with their Green Energy Act — the Liberals have demonstrated careless disregard for public expense both now and in the future.
Some of the careless costs induced by government policy are covered up by silly little financial fig leaves. One example is the “Ontario Clean Energy Benefit” which transfers 10% of the household power bill from current consumers to the provincial deficit where it will be paid by future generations. Another cost concealment fig leaf is the temporary cost recovery suppression imposed on the Crown-owned utility Ontario Power Generation. OPG is likely to require sharp revenue increases in the near future to meet its growing obligations. Even without correcting for these financial shams, Ontario will soon have the highest power rates in North America. Prudent policies over the last 10 years would have left Ontario’s all-in rates around the continental average.
The constancy of the Ontario Liberal message — the document cover-up was justified, even required, to protect ratepayers and taxpayers — demonstrates the power of disciplined message management. The intense training and coaching behind this political theatre is so well done that the beautifully synchronized intonation and phrasing of these constantly repeated talking points appears almost natural.
That politicians and their appointees have lied about their intentions in covering up their bad behaviour is bad but sadly neither unexpected nor without precedent. A time out on the Opposition benches will restore Liberal concern for transparency and honesty.
What is unexpected and ugly on a different level is what Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner has uncovered.
Cavoukian’s report issued yesterday, “Addendum to Deleting Accountability: Records Management Practices of Political Staff”, presents sweeping evidence that key elements of the Ontario Public Service acted as appendages of the government of the day, not as servants of the people of Ontario.
In her latest report, Cavoukian concludes in part:
I am left with the inescapable conclusion that (the Ministry of Government Services) did not take my investigation very seriously. For example, MGS staff did not inform my office about the following essential pieces of information: (1) the existence and the application of the Symantec Enterprise Vault as part of the OPS Enterprise Email
System; (2) the existence of approximately 30,000 undeleted or â€œorphanedâ€ vault accounts; (3) the existence of an inventory of approximately 3,000 back-up tapes; and (4) Iron Mountainâ€™s involvement with the back-up tapes.
The provision of inaccurate and incomplete information in my initial investigation is unprecedented during my tenure as Commissioner. As a direct consequence of MGSâ€™ incomplete response, the public has been misled as to the nature of the OPS Enterprise Email System and the ability of MGS staff to retrieve potentially relevant information. We now know that relevant email records were indeed retrievable through these systems.
Chaotic information management practices provided a cloaking device for official communication about public business on the gas plants. Once her investigation was triggered by a request from NDP MPP Peter Tabuns, the Information and Privacy Commissioner was fed inaccurate and incomplete responses to her questions about the availability of records. Disturbingly, this inaccurate and incomplete information was presented so consistently that Cavoukian, her staff, and also her outside expert consultant did not detect any loose ends or unopened doors while the Commissioner was preparing her original June 5th report. That report accepted official Ontario Public Service assurances that all official emails on the gas plants responsive to the Tabuns request had been destroyed.
We now know that story was rot. For just one of the key Liberal insiders, the enthusiastic email deleter Craig MacLennan, 1,800 new gas plant emails records have been discovered so far and reported to Cavoukian.
A small sampling of other newly available emails is posted at Part 56 of this series.
Folks following my own FOI investigation of Premier McGuinty’s office starting at Part 23 of this series will know that Premier Wynne’s office has responded to my FOI in a way that bears an uncanny similarity to inaccurate and incomplete response Cavoulian initially was fed.
In Part 47 of this series, I argued that the Ontario government’s email system is based on obsolete RAID technology and massively underpowered. I called this a “structural failure of the public service to take its transparency duties seriously.” I noted that this web site uses Amazon S3 storage technology which is more capable than that used by the OPS for the official business of the province. The evidence presented in the latest report from the Information and Privacy Commissioner suggests that this assessment presented in Part 47 is incomplete. Not only is the government’s current data storage system incapable of providing the transparency Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act requires but the organization of such technical resources as are available, however obsolete and underpowered, is chaotic.
Included in the conclusion for Part 47 was the statement that “The Ontario Public Service needs to update its information practices to create an architecture of information and communication with accountability principles embedded in its methodologies.” The evidence presented in the latest report from the Information and Privacy Commissioner suggests that this assessment is also incomplete. Those within the Ontario Public Service responsible for the many administrative shortcomings in disclosure of gas plant information to the Legislature and its committees should be demoted and in the worst cases fired for dereliction of duty.
The Information and Privacy Commissioner is an officer of the legislature with a specific legal mandate to reinforce the accountability of the provincial executive. The failure of the Ontario Public Service to respond to her inquiries is therefore a gravely serious matter.
Without in any way diminishing the significance of the OPS’s failure to respond to the IPC’s inquiries, the OPS has failed in a similar way to respond to my inquiry of the Premier’s Office, originally filed in November 2012. The rights of individual Ontario citizens to hold their government to account are also fundamental to a well-functioning society.
The concluding chapter of the IPC report is called “Moving Ahead â€“ Information Management in the Modern Context”. This entire section is powerfully reasoned. Most significantly, she recommends that existing freedom of information laws be reformed to make it an offence “for any person to wilfully destroy (official government business) records that are subject to, or may reasonably be subject to, an access request”. This reform is urgently needed.