A member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's caucus says she was only trying to put witnesses "at ease" this week when she successfully pushed public hearings about subsidies for the fossil fuel industry behind closed doors.
Brossard—Saint-Lambert Liberal MP Alexandra Mendès, vice chair of the House of Commons public accounts committee said the maneuver was meant to foster a "frank discussion" as federal MPs reviewed the matter.
Canada, under former prime minister Stephen Harper, made a 2009 commitment with other G20 countries to phase out inefficient subsidies for the oil, gas and coal industry as part of efforts to tackle the heat-trapping pollution that contributes to climate change. The G20 countries had agreed that these subsidies, estimated to be worth more than $300 billion per year, help boost demand for fossil fuels, which leads to more pollution.
Mendès' motion wasn't the first time the government has tried to keep secrets about its progress in meeting the commitment. Last April, Michael Ferguson, the federal auditor general, said in a report that the Finance Department had refused to share information with his office for an audit on the issue. The same audit found that Environment and Climate Change Canada had no plan to meet the commitment.
"It is clear the Liberals are still trying to keep this undercover, first by not releasing data to the auditor general and now by preventing a House of Commons Committee from studying this issue," said Annie Bérubé, the director of government relations for Quebec-based environmental group, Équiterre.
The committee meeting itself was the first gathering of MPs planning to study Ferguson's audit about the subsidies.
The motion to go behind closed doors cut off questions for several expert witnesses, including Ferguson, who were appearing to speak publicly at the parliamentary committee.
“We wanted to have a very candid and frank discussion,” said Mendès. “I wanted to make sure that there would be no constraints.”
The meeting broke down about 10 minutes after it started, following opening statements from Ferguson, as well as senior officials from Finance Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada. Paul Shuttle, a lawyer representing federal public service boss Michael Wernick, was also present and expected to testify. The top bureaucrat acts as a secretary to cabinet and oversees advice given to cabinet members.
Mendès responded to the opening statements with her motion to go in-camera, a process that blocks the evidence from being published.
Coincidentally, a fire alarm had also went off right before Mendès started speaking.
“These discussions are rather delicate in nature, and so I think we should go in-camera,” said Mendès at the committee.
According to the rules, the committee proceeded immediately to a vote on the motion, which carried.
The Trudeau government's cabinet issued an order in May 2017 that was meant to grant access to all of the documents it required, prepared after Nov. 4, 2015, but this decision didn't apply to documents that were prepared when the former Harper government was in power.
Ferguson said in a statement, prepared for his parliamentary committee appearance, that the government only turned over documents his office had requested on Oct. 20, "including unredacted strategic environmental assessments and other documents that contain explanations, analyses of problems or policy options." But he said his office was still negotiating with the Privy Council Office to get access to other information needed for the ongoing audits.
In an interview on Thursday, Mendès said she wasn’t trying to hide anything by introducing the motion. She said it was her idea to introduce it, and she wasn’t ordered to do so by the Liberal Party.
“I wasn’t, in any way, instructed to do this or that,” said Mendès.
“I think if you follow the workings of our committee so far, you can see that we have been as engaged in getting to the bottom of things as the opposition.”
She said she moved the motion immediately, instead of trying to see what officials would say in public first, because she didn’t want to anger witnesses.
“I don’t think that by antagonizing people, we get what we want. I actually do believe in that proverb that says, we get a lot more with honey than with vinegar,” said Mendès.
“I thought that it would have put everybody much more at ease, if we started with the premise that ‘Yes, you can speak freely.’”
Following the fire alarm, Mendès said that the MPs eventually returned and had a "fruitful" discussion with the witnesses.
Canadian oil and gas companies pay far lower taxes in Canada, reports the Guardian
The strange maneuvering over the parliamentary study coincides with revelations from an investigation by the Guardian, which reported on Thursday that oil and gas companies are taxed in Canada at a far lower rate than abroad, representing potentially billions of dollars in lost revenue.
Chevron Canada, for example, paid almost seven times as much to Indonesia as it did to municipal and provincial governments in Canada, while Canadian Natural Resources Limited paid almost four times as much to Ivory Coast, the Guardian reported.
The news outlet's Montreal-based reporter, Martin Lukacs, was able to produce the data by cross-referencing a Canadian database of oil, gas and mining firms' foreign payments that launched in June 2017 with oil production figures.
Earlier this year, Finance Minister Bill Morneau pointed to a cabinet order that he said would address Ferguson’s complaints about not having access to documents. But Ferguson said that order didn’t go far enough in addressing the recurring issue of secrecy.
Mendès said she wanted to have a discussion with Shuttle and Ferguson about what was being considered secret, and what had changed with the May 2017 cabinet order.
“I don’t want us to be impeded in getting information, because we’re in public," she said.
Morneau was ordered to “phase out subsidies for the fossil fuel industry over the medium-term” in his mandate letter from the prime minister.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 10:35 a.m. on Monday to include additional information about government instructions to make more documents available to the auditor general.