Monday, October 10, 2005

Leaving no evidence

Word comes out of a pattern of Liberal contracts which require that no documentation be provided:
Federal officials are under fire for a $132,000 contract signed with an outside consultant that specifies the firm must leave no paper trail in government offices...

The February 2005 contract ensures there are no documents in office filing cabinets that auditors can later verify and citizens can consult through requests under the Access to Information Act...

A spokeswoman for the Treasury Board, which sets government-wide policy for procurement, declined to say whether the "oral" report adheres to the regulations.

But Michelle Laliberte said Indian and Northern Affairs needs to be able to demonstrate to auditors that the work paid for was in fact delivered.

Based on the article, one would think that the biggest issue is whether or not any work was actually delivered for the funding. But I'll readily assume that there's at least some way to show that the newer work was performed. Even granting that assumption, the original mandate for the contracts that has to be called into question.

Note in particular the purpose behind the Access to Information Act, which the contracts appear designed to avoid:
The purpose of this Act provide a right of access to information in records under the control of a government institution in accordance with the principles that government information should be available to the public, that necessary exceptions to the right of access should be limited and specific and that decisions on the disclosure of government information should be reviewed independently of government.

Regardless of whether or not the work was actually done, the contracts reflect a deliberate intention to undermine the principle of open government. The "government information" is restricted only to the eyes and ears of the recipients, based on a governmental decision to limit access which can't be reviewed.

For those wondering whether this is based on national security concerns, there are two reasons why that can't be the issue. First, the issues involved in such contracts have included some (e.g. bank mergers) which plainly don't involve any security interests, and indeed where full and free access is necessary for the marketplace to operate fairly. Second, the AIA specifically provides for protections where there is a genuine need to hide information. When a government goes out of its way to bypass a review process, it's generally fair to assume that it wouldn't have been able to defend its side if the review took place.

If the only problem here were a possibility that money had been wasted on preferential contracts, that would be a relatively minor story. The bigger issue is a government going out of its way both to avoid letting the public know about important information, and to avoid facing any accountability for that choice. It's only by highlighting these stories when they come out that we can make clear that such actions are completely inappropriate - and that they won't be forgotten next time the Liberals ask Canadians for their trust.

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