Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2019
Robert Lyman is an Ottawa energy policy consultant and a former public servant and diplomat. His full bio is here.
One of the foundational principles of democracy is that the public has a right to know. That right extends to what the government is doing and why. The practical application of this principle lies, in part, in the access that Parliament, the media and the general public have to information about the government’s policies, programs, revenues and expenditures. At the more detailed level, the “transparency” of government actions can be assured through the enforcement of the laws that govern public access to the information that the government has.
Canada’s Access to Information Act is supposed to assure that access. Much of the time, the most valuable part of the information people seek is the analysis that underlies and justifies specific policies and actions. Governments are rightly expected to make decisions not just for political reasons to satisfy one group or constituency, but also based on evidence that the decisions taken will serve the broad public interest and are based on good advice. When a government refuses to provide such access, the public has good reason to be concerned.
A Case in Point – Information about the Impact of Carbon Pricing on Canadians
The implementation by the federal and provincial governments of various systems of carbon dioxide pricing is one of the central components of the current Canadian climate policy framework. Virtually all of the information issued by the federal government about the impact of carbon dioxide pricing, however, has been in the reports issued by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), all of which show that the pricing regimes will have generally low adverse impacts on the Canadian economy.
I am a retired federal public servant who for several years worked on energy and environmental policy topics and for a brief period worked in Finance Canada. Based on this experience, I am well aware that the primary responsibility for assessing and analyzing the macroeconomic (i.e. all-economy) effects of major public policies lies with Finance Canada, not ECCC.
On January 16, 2019, I wrote to Finance Canada seeking, under the Access to Information Act (ATIP), access to the documents containing analysis or comments by Finance Canada officials on the economic effects of carbon taxes on Canada. The period I requested correspondence from was January 1, 2017 to January 15, 2019. I received several notices stating that my request could not be answered within the timeframe normally required by the Act, which I protested.
The Government’s Response
In mid-September, 2019, eight months after my request, I received a response from Denise Brennan, Director of the Access to Information and Privacy Division of Finance Canada enclosing a compact disk with some correspondence on it.
I was astounded to find that, with one exception, the correspondence included bore little relationship to my request. The one document that was relevant was a memorandum from Sean Keenan of the Sales Tax Division to Andrew Marsland, Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, Tax Policy, concerning an attached report called the “Carbon Pricing Impact Write-Up”. This document was described as having been prepared jointly by officials of Finance Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada. In the event, almost every part of the document was blanked out except for the information that has already been published by the government. Notably, the entire section of analysis, including pages 191 to 238, were blanked out.
The explanation given was that the information had been withheld in accordance with sections 14, 21(1) (a), and 21 (1) (b) of ATIP. Those sections relate to protection of information “injurious to the conduct by the government of federal-provincial relations”, “advice or recommendations developed by or for a government institution or minister of the Crown”, and “an account of consultations” in which officials participate.
It is a travesty to suggest that the straight-forward analysis of economic impacts by itself fits under any of these exemptions. It is also simply unbelievable that Finance Canada at no time over the period January 1, 2017 to January 15, 2019 provided any analysis to the Minister of Finance Canada about the potential and actual macroeconomic effects of carbon taxation. In short, it seems highly likely that officials of Finance Canada deliberately denied my public access to information relating to the adverse effects of carbon dioxide pricing, in contravention of the Act.
One can only surmise that the delays in responding to the ATIP request, and the failure to reveal the contents of correspondence in accordance with the requirements of the Act, were motivated by political considerations; specifically, to avoid embarrassment to the government that would be caused if the true costs of the carbon taxing regime were revealed. As a former federal public servant, I am fully aware of the pressures that Ministers can place on officials to avoid the public release of information embarrassing to the government. I simply prefer that higher standards of integrity and non-partisanship prevail.
I will write to the Office of the Information Commissioner to protest.
By denying my right, and by extension the public’s right, to fair disclosure of information about the impacts of carbon dioxide pricing, Finance Canada has helped the government to hide information that is of potentially great significance to an issue that will be prominent in the current federal election campaign.
Carbon dioxide pricing will raise Canadians’ energy costs across the board, especially in the provinces and industries that rely heavily on oil, natural gas and coal. It will especially affect companies that bear the burden of additional taxes but will receive no rebates and will still have to compete with firms in countries with low or no carbon dioxide taxes, like the USA, Mexico and China, Canada’s three largest trading partners.
Canadians should have the right to know what the government’s own economic experts warn about these impacts. One can only conclude that the its intent is to hide bad news. By not allowing the information to be made public, the government has denied the public’s rights and undermined an important facet of our democracy.