Government takes an Orwellian turn
In a report earlier this year, I referred to a recent order paper question I had received regarding cancelled contracts by Government of Canada agencies and departments.
An ‘order paper question’ is a written question from a Member of Parliament tabled in the House of Commons.
After 48 hours’ notice, the question is posted on the ‘Order Paper’ with the intent that the responsible Minister will provide a substantive answer within 45 House of Commons sitting days.
Each Member of Parliament is allowed a maximum of four questions on the order paper at any time. It is important to note that the answers to these questions must convey only factual information.
As elected Members of Parliament, answers to order paper questions provide a sound base of factual information from which to debate our various positions.
In the absence of such facts, such as how much tax payer money was spent or how many full-time employees or consultants were hired as the public service implemented the policies of the government of the day, it becomes difficult to have a constructive discussion or debate.
As I mentioned earlier this year, I received a reply to one of my order paper questions asking the federal government how many cancelled contracts there were between January 1st, 2019, and December 12th, 2022.
I also inquired about the possibility of cancellation fees and the associated penalties. The departments that provided a full accounting of cancelled contracts indicated that over half a million dollars in penalties had been paid out for more than 300 cancelled contracts.
Based on this information, I stated: “What we have learned from these order paper questions is that it is far more economical for the Government of Canada to cancel contracts where they are not needed.”
I also pointed out that these records reveal that this Liberal Government does not cancel contracts often, meaning taxpayers will continue to pay more for services no longer-needed.
Recently my Conservative colleague from Calgary-Nose Hill, MP Michelle Rempel-Garner, made a troubling discovery through an access-to-information and privacy request (ATIP).
These ATIP documents show that political ministerial staff deliberately manipulated responses to some order paper questions to avoid fully answering the questions as required.
For instance, the Department of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) –at the direction of political staff — recommended to hide specific cancelled contracts.
They even acknowledged that this approach carried the inherent risk of other departments disclosing their cancelled contracts so that NRCan would stand out by not doing so, but accepted this inherent risk over disclosure.
This risk-based approach, which NRCan referred to as “language limitation” — an Orwellian term if I’ve ever seen one — creates a formula for deciding when not to disclose information — despite the public obligation to do so.
This approach also affected other opposition MP’s, including MP Rempel-Garner. As a result, we appealed to the House of Commons Speaker, Anthony Rota.
When an MP is prevented from properly discharging their duties as an elected official, they can claim a ‘point of privilege’ and state why they believe their ability to perform their duties as an MP has been improperly limited or restricted.
The Speaker can investigate the claim, rule on whether it has merit, and determine if it constitutes a violation.
Sadly, even the Chief of Staff to the Minister of Natural Resources made a statement that said, “I’m expecting the Speaker to tut-tut and then say it is not for him to judge the quality of a response, but we will see.”
For opposition MP’s, this means being able to hold the government accountable. To not disclose facts runs against Canadian democratic principles and the very notion of ‘Responsible Government’.
Although the Speaker appeared to grasp the seriousness of the situation, he merely issued a rebuke to the department bureaucrats for their alarming actions. I fear this “language limitation” approach will soon spread to other departments.
My question this week is:
Are you worried about this obstruction of factual information from the Government of Canada?
I can be reached at Dan.Albas@parl.gc.ca or call toll-free at 1-800-665-8711.