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What are they trying to hide?
The federal Liberal government includes openness, transparency and fairness in its branding. Those words highlight a key plank of the Liberal Party’s 2015 election platform, still touted on their website.
Among their lofty promises about trust and democracy are amendments to the Access to Information Act so that all government data and information is “open by default;” and ensuring that Access to Information applies to the office of the prime minister and cabinet ministers, and to administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts. They promised an all-party national security oversight committee to monitor and oversee the operations of every government department and agency with national security responsibilities.
The mandate letter each cabinet minister receives from the prime minister, describing his or her work, includes a promise of a higher bar for openness and transparency in government.
“It is time to shine more light on government to ensure it remains focused on the people it serves,” the letters say. “Government and its information should be open by default. If we want Canadians to trust their government, we need a government that trusts Canadians. It is important that we acknowledge mistakes when we make them. Canadians do not expect us to be perfect – they expect us to be honest, open, and sincere in our efforts to serve the public interest.”
Canadians are well within their rights to expect the government to live up to these promises.
Why then have we met with resistance to openness and transparency when we are trying to understand the economic and environmental rationales behind plans to privatize a district heating and cooling system in the National Capital Region? Why have our communications been met with silence? Why have promises been broken? Why have deadlines been missed? Why have Access to Information requests been denied or delayed?
Let me explain.
Nearly 100 buildings (such as the Supreme Court, the Bank of Canada, Parliament, the National Art Centre) in the National Capital Region (Ottawa and Gatineau) are heated by a centralized District Energy System (DES) that uses several large boilers to provide heat through piped tunnels. Chilled water is also piped year round to those facilities that require constant cooler temperatures (large computer server rooms, for example). Currently, these plants are owned by the federal government and are operated and maintained by public sector workers.
Critical infrastructure at stake
After a fatal accident that killed one of our workers in 2009, the Harper Conservatives developed a plan to privatize these plants, primarily as a cost-saving measure. The current government has moved ahead with these plans and wants to turn five of the DES plants, and the associated 14 km of pipes and tunnels, into a public-private partnership (P3).
With 50,000 public sector workers in these buildings, as the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) Regional Executive Vice-President for the National Capital Region it is my responsibility to be concerned about the health and safety issues inherent in turning to the lowest-bidding consortium of private companies to renovate, maintain and operate these critical infrastructure systems.
Among the companies in the two consortia that have qualified to bid is SNC-Lavalin.
Over the months, it has become apparent that we should also question whether this project will really reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or whether this is green-washing in order to offload responsibility to the private sector. We’ve been actively trying to get answers to many questions about whether this would save money (as P3s usually don’t), about whether the impact on the health and safety of the people in and around the buildings, about whether proper environmental studies have been done.
Instead of answers, we have a long and growing litany of blocked attempts to gather information.
Between September of 2018 and February of 2019, we met with 11 Liberal government MPs, from Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Steve MacKinnon, parliamentary secretary to Carla Qualtrough, minister of public services and procurement and accessibility, to backbench local members. We have raised our concerns, asked questions, sent letters, and even have had assurances by text message that we will get responses. None have been received.
In October, 2018, the presidents of six national unions, and two community groups wrote a letter to McKenna, with copies to Qualtrough and House Leader Bardish Chagger. We reminded them “If we’ve learned one lesson from the Phoenix pay system fiasco, it is that consultation and working together with the personnel who have the experience, from the very beginning, must be an integral part of any change in government operations. “ No response was received.
Since October, 2018, our members have written hundreds of letters to McKenna and MacKinnon, asking them to stop this process and to enter into discussions with the members. We are not aware of any responses having been received.
Since November, 2018, the department had repeatedly promised to send the business case within a few weeks. Repeatedly, these deadlines were missed. In March, we finally received an old version of the business case, dating back to 2016, with all financial information redacted, rendering it virtually useless.
On Jan. 25, 2019, the project’s labour working group filed seven Access to Information Requests (ATIPs). All but one of the ATIPs have been denied, or delayed, and a complaint was filed on Feb. 25, 2019 with the Information Commissioner.
On Feb. 21, in a meeting with MacKinnon we were told, “Believe me, the entire department knows that you want this information.” And still, no real responses have been received.
Is this open and transparent government? You decide.
Updated at 8:30 am ET to clarify a meeting was held with the parliamentary secretary to Minister Carla Qualtrough, Steve MacKinnon, not with the minister herself.