Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tear up open-gov't memo

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After a good start, asserting an interest in being open, transparent and accountable, the Selinger government has become increasingly opaque.

Government administers legislation and policies that, ostensibly, allow us to receive information on their actions. Manitoba's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) supposedly makes government be open. But provisions within FIPPA contradict the legislation's alleged purpose and allow for the withholding of information. And, if release of information sought isn't blocked by a provision of the act, then the cost levied for providing the material is often high enough to discourage the asker.

Disappointed questioners can seek help from the ombudsman. But, once again, provisions in FIPPA legislation provide outs for the ombudsman (meaning no release). And, while we can also approach the auditor general, the auditor's mandate is restricted, exempting government policies from full scrutiny and comment.

This goes for government's agencies as well. Government sets its mandates, establishes their terms of reference and, too often, appoints and retains only those it believes will not rock the boat. Stripped back to the naked real purpose of too many agencies, they stand between us and the government, providing 'cover' for contentious actions. Discussions of options and direction that regularly occur between government and its agencies are considered confidential. We ratepayers and taxpayers are not to know why or what is coming.

In the end, with the sole exception of the courts, government alone decides whether requests for information will be responded to. Most likely, particularly if the information requested is seen as potentially damaging to government, either it will not be forthcoming at all, or, if it is, it will come with confusing dollops of sugar.

In recent years, so-called whistleblower laws have become popular. The provisions suggest those working within government's ever-expanding empire can make public alleged wrongdoings of government and not be punished. Don't believe it. Talk, and expect to be ostracized.

Shortly after Premier Greg Selinger took the reins from Gary Doer, he sent a memorandum to all provincial government departments, Crown corporations and agencies. He called for an open, transparent and accountable administration. Those initial promising and noble words have since been proved hollow by innumerable actions of his government and its agencies.

Hydro took its risk-management consultant, later turned whistleblower, to court, using ratepayers' funds to effectively gag her. This was libel chill, not transparency. Former cabinet minister Christine Melnick misled the legislature, leaving her deputy minister to twist in the spotlight for months. Stan Struthers, former finance minister and now minister responsible for Hydro, claimed in an article published in a rural newspaper Hydro rates had fallen over the last 20 years; little could be more contrary to the truth.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, rebuffed by Hydro when it sought the details of $244 million Hydro had admitted spending related to negotiating with northern First Nations, appealed to the ombudsman. The ombudsman sided with Hydro, citing provisions of FIPPA that 'protect' third parties (in this case, those 'protected' were the recipients of Hydro's largesse). The Public Utilities Board was tasked, five years late, with examining Hydro's expansion plans, but the key plank in that plan, Bipole III, was excluded from the incredibly expensive and flawed review. The PUB's mandates with respect to setting Hydro and MPI rates are purposely restricted, leaving its effectiveness narrow and shallow. Question period in the legislature has the opposition asking direct questions only to have them batted away by government, rarely responding on point.

In short, government often keeps the taxpayers and ratepayers who fund their adventures in the dark. Full disclosure could bring embarrassment, and they have gotten away withholding vital information in the past. Actions count more than words.

Those who now govern us seem to have two goals -- get elected and stay in power. Why? They enjoy power; it comes with perks and the ability to implement ideologies. Information critical to an understanding of government's actions is too often hidden away or obscured, while promises made while in election mode are not implemented after the win. There is always an excuse for why government can't do what they promised -- they blame the weather, the markets, other governments, anybody and anything but themselves.

Government has forgotten they hold their positions as stewards of the public trust. At the very least, they should be open, transparent and accountable -- and let the chips fall where they may. Instead, what we get is a culture of secrecy, obfuscation, and almost always, spin.

 

Graham Lane is a retired chartered accountant and had extensive experience in Crown corporations in several provinces. He was the chairman of the Public Utilities Board from 2004 to 2012.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 23, 2014 A9

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About Graham Lane

Graham Lane is a retired chartered accountant who worked in the public and private sectors for 50 years, concluding his career as chairman of the Manitoba Public Utilities Board.

He has also held key positions at Credit Union Central, Public Investments of Manitoba, the Manitoba Public Insurance Corp., the University of Winnipeg, and the Manitoba Worker's Compensation Board.

Before gaining his CA designation in Quebec, he was third in Canada in the then-national intermediate examination. He has a diploma in business administration from the University of Western Ontario and has served on numerous charitable and service boards.

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