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The CBC chronicling of Covid-19 spending in their series The Big Spend examines the unprecedented $240 billion the federal government handed out during the first eight months of the pandemic. The series puts a spotlight on Justin Trudeau’s 2015 election commitment to have more open and transparent government.
Transparency is essential to accountability and with it a core principle of Good Governance. Transparency takes many forms in government and is governed by a mix of laws, policies and conventions such as the Access to Information Act http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/A-1/index.html and the Privacy Act http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca… as well as Treasury Board policies relating to Open Government and the values of candour and sincerity in government communications.
Amendments to the Access to Information Act were passed prior to the 2019 Election and brought in mandatory proactive disclosure of Ministerial Briefing Binders as well as other changes.
Canada’s parliamentary institutions are an important source of transparency in our system. The CBC story reveals the Government has been disclosing spending plans regularly, but has been less transparent or clear on ‘who’ has been receiving such funds. Parliament’s ultimate authority is the ‘power of the purse’ in approving the Government’s appropriations. For Parliament to exercise this power, access to accurate and timely information on spending is critical. Parliamentary support also serves as a proxy for public trust. Failure to satisfy Parliament can translate quickly into the public’s confidence that the Government is not acting with its financial interests in mind.
Transparency can be inconvenient. First, it takes limited resources away from what could be argued as a higher priority (addressing the pandemic for example). It also creates a dual risk to the Government on both its content and accuracy. A timely number, data point or detail that is incorrect could be more damaging than taking additional time to be more accurate. The dual edge of transparency sword is therefore competence and trust. If managed well, competence can be demonstrated and to some degree celebrated while public trust also increases. The reverse is also true. Therefore, commitments to transparency, its systems and its completeness are critical to the longevity of governments, particularly minority governments. Spin can be employed as a form or an approach to transparency; however, spin is the domain of communications specialists and political strategists.
The CBC series raises important questions that can be uncomfortable for decision makers. However, the CBC uncovered ‘good news’ too that had been buried in the flood of announcements and spending plans such as the timely and needed distribution of funds to Women’s Shelters Canada.
Significant government spending will always attract the interest of the media and a concerned public. Covid-19 spending and the recent Economic Update have generated numbers including public debt levels not seen since the Second World War.
The Government will need to provide greater transparency on spending either through proactive disclosure or in requests through Parliament, its Standing Committees or the Auditor General of Canada.
While disclosure may reveal some poor decisions, it is that ‘inconvenient truth’ that makes transparency an essential element of Good Governance. The public airing of both good and poor decisions and the systems that generate them are a necessary nuisance that is healthy and vital for good governance.
By Stephen M. Van Dine, Senior Vice-President, Public Governance
Born in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Stephen spent his formative teen-age years finishing High School at Sir John Franklin Territorial High school in the Northwest Territories. He also began his career as a community planner with the City of Yellowknife and later with the Government of the Northwest Territories, Department of Municipal and Community Affairs. In 1997, he began working at Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, in the Yellowknife Regional Office and transferred to the National Capital Region in 2002. Since then, Stephen has led a number of program, policy and legislative sustainable development initiatives with respect to northern governance, the arctic, the Devolution of Land and Resource Management Responsibilities in the Northwest Territories, the implementation and modification to the Nutrition North Canada program, co-drafting the Inuit Nunangat Declaration, overseeing the construction of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, as well as supporting the legislation to establish of Polar Knowledge Canada. More recently, Stephen has been working on a long-term asset sustainability strategy for Parks Canada Agency along with overseeing critical corporate functions with respect to Information Technology, Cabinet and Regulatory Business, Asset Management and Security.
Stephen has a degree in Urban and Regional Planning from Ryerson University and a Masters in Public Administration from Queen’s University. Stephen recently completed an Executive Certificate in Energy and the Environment from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Stephen is married and has two children with his wife Marie.