Culture of Secrecy
Ed Stelmach promised transparency when he came to office, but somewhere along the way, the wheels fell off the accountability track.
Illustration by Dushan Milic
When Alberta Progressive Conservatives selected Ed Stelmach as the new leader of their party, they chose a man known for both his integrity and stability. Throughout his life as a farmer, a county reeve, an MLA and a cabinet minister, Stelmach carved out a reputation for honesty and sincerity. To his colleagues, he was “Steady Eddie” or “Honest Ed.” He was perceived as a nice guy. His beaming smile could light up a room.
There were more dynamic candidates vying for the job, including some who had plans to swing the party hard to the right or more to the centre, but, in the end, party members opted for a steady hand at the tiller over flash and dash.
Stelmach made only a few promises, but among them was a vow to bring more openness and accountability to a governing party in danger of slipping into autocracy after nearly four decades in power. The Ralph Klein regime Stelmach was replacing had once been named by the Canadian Association of Journalists as the most secretive government in the country.
The new premier promised to throw open the drapes and let Albertans in on the decision-making process. He repeated that pledge to voters in March 2008 and they responded by giving him a massive majority – 72 of the legislature’s 83 seats.
To demonstrate his commitment to transparency, Stelmach’s first bill was a law to create a lobbyist registry that would allow Albertans to see who was tugging on the arms of power.
He also opened the door to more input from the puny opposition through the creation of new all-party field committees that were assigned to study, research and debate policy. Cabinet ministers were given public mandates, posted on their websites, to help Albertans assess whether or not they had accomplished their goals. They were also required to post online their expenses for hosting and international travel.
Stelmach established a protocol that would inform all Albertans when the legislative assembly would begin and end its sessions and when the throne speech and provincial budget would be announced. He also set aside specific times during the session when MLAs could be available in their constituencies, and he pledged to reduce night sessions in a bid to attract more women to political office.
It seemed a new day of enlightenment was dawning in the province – but somewhere along the path to openness and transparency, the wheels of accountability began to bog down.
Stelmach’s first bill, the much-trumpeted lobbyist registry, stalled coming out of the gate and is still not in operation two years later. Calgary Tory MLA Neil Brown, who chaired a committee examining the concept, says part of the difficulty has been in finding software for the computer-based registry. “We thought we were going to get the software from the Ontario lobbyist registry and more or less use it, but I gather they had to do some adaptations because the provisions in our acts aren’t the same,” he says.
Treasury Board President Lloyd Snelgrove says the registry has proved more difficult to implement than initially anticipated because of the unintended impact it could have on non-profit groups. “We’ve got to make sure we achieve what we set out to do,” he says. “It is important that we get it right. The worst thing would be if it was designed where you couldn’t have a relationship with the non-profits and other agencies, or if the registry was expensive or so costly that we couldn’t afford to run it.” The government has since brought in changes to Stelmach’s lobbyist bill to try to resolve some of the issues raised by the initial piece of legislation.
But as Stelmach has found out, it is one thing to endorse openness and transparency, and another to integrate it into a massive bureaucracy.
Another stumbling block has been the difficulty in setting a budget date. Last year an election interfered and this year the finance minister said she couldn’t pick a date because of the uncertainty in the economy. The government wouldn’t even provide advance warning of when it was going to report quarterly on its budget forecasts – and those reports are pegged to specific time frames by law.
Opposition leaders have enjoyed a political heyday, seizing upon every government initiative and setting them against Stelmach’s announced new transparency standard.
The blunders surrounding transparency reached the point of ridiculousness earlier this spring when the Edmonton Journal revealed that a photograph used in Alberta’s controversial $25-million rebranding campaign – a photo of two children romping in tall grass near a beach – was actually taken on the Northumberland coast in England. A spokesman in the premier’s office said the photo was included to demonstrate that Albertans are worldly – an explanation Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason summed up as the “most lame spin ever.” From the tone of letters to newspaper editors and callers to phone-in radio shows, Albertans concurred with that assessment. The province’s Public Affairs Bureau posted an apology on its website stating the photo had been used in error. The premier later said he has learned from the experience, but it appears he is struggling to turn a ship that is locked onto a set course.
Ken Chapman, a member of the Progressive Conservative party, says his government has reached the tipping point with the rebranding episode. He says if it is going to deliver on the promise of openness, it must begin to change now. “My party has a cultural problem,” says Chapman, a consultant, policy analyst and political blogger.
“I think it is well-intentioned, but not very good on the execution side. I’m still a pretty big Stelmach fan, so you always look for the positive and roll your eyes at the negative. I think what is happening is the openness and transparency is well-intended, but change has not really started.”
Chapman says his party apparently cannot give up the command-and-control formula it has always used, and though it contends it wants to be more open and accountable, it prefers “one-way broadcasting” to really listening and involving Albertans.
“The government wants to keep control, but the world has moved beyond that. They are not meeting expectations at all,” says Chapman.
He says the rebranding campaign was supposed to counter misinformation being spread by environmental groups, but instead it has made Alberta a laughingstock. “We’re being as misleading as we’re accusing them of being,” he laments, “and where is the integrity in that?”
The rebranding episode is not the first communications catastrophe for the Tories since Stelmach was elected. The dead ducks incident was another. The province announced charges against Syncrude in 2008 for failing to keep waterfowl off its oilsands tailings pond, but neg-lected to tell Albertans when it later learned that more than three times as many ducks died as first thought.
Syncrude eventually issued a statement when it went to trial in 2009 to clarify the matter. While the government had initially reported 500 ducks dead, Syncrude pegged the number at more than 1,600. The government says it couldn’t release the updated number for fear of jeopardizing the trial. “It was more important to get a successful prosecution than to get a headline,” says Paul Stanway, director of communications for the premier’s office. While the actual number may not have been a big issue for many Albertans, it raised an uncomfortable question in the minds of some: what else wasn’t the government telling them?
The province’s credibility on oilsands issues was questioned again a few weeks later when a CBC reporter discovered that the province had quiet-ly charged another oilsands giant, Suncor, with a number of environmental charges last year that related primarily to sewage released from a work camp. An Alberta Environment spokesperson said it was not the government’s policy to issue statements when companies were charged with violating environmental regulations and the department couldn’t comment on the charges because they were before the courts. In the legislature, Environment Minister Rob Renner was left to explain just what his department’s policy was on releasing that information and why the province announced the charges against Syncrude, but not Suncor.
But telling problems with accountability had already surfaced early in Stelmach’s reign. Albertans were incensed in May 2008 at the decision by cabinet ministers and the premier to grant themselves a 30-per-cent raise. Even some of the party’s biggest boosters, who were willing to accept that a raise may have been warranted, were offended by the way it was done – behind closed doors and without any independent authorization or consultation.
Reporters covering the legislature have observed that the information hatches have been battened down significantly since Stelmach took over the premier’s office.
Mark Lisac, a veteran member of the Alberta legislature press gallery who publishes a political newsletter called Insight Into Government, says he has seen the government steadily tightening its grip on the information it controls. “Every year that passes, they seem to develop more rules about how communication is handled, and more people are involved in the job of handling communication,” he says. “We have something like 30,000 people working directly for the provincial government in the province and not a single one of them is supposed to talk to any journalist about anything.”
Cabinet policy committee meetings, involving only Conservative MLAs, are now always closed to the media. These meetings were often open in the past when delegations like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers or other industry groups came to the legislature to present their concerns or lobby for legislative changes. “The number of meetings that were open to the public gradually dwindled and then ended,” Lisac says.
Stelmach’s party has also closed most sessions of its once-open annual convention. Stanway says that was at the request of attendees. Party members and the Alberta Chamber of Resources – which represents oil companies and manufacturers – don’t want media around.
Stelmach’s office declined to make him available for an interview for this article, despite repeated requests over a month-long period. Stanway said the premier was too busy and volunteered to answer for him on his promise of openness and accountability.
But the media’s problem with access is small compared to concerns Albertans have about the Stelmach government’s covert plan to reform the health-care system. The government says it has to make changes to ensure the costly system remains sustainable for future generations, but hasn’t set out a blueprint showing how it plans to do that. Health Minister Ron Liepert has refused to show his cards until he’s ready to play them. “There’s a lot of information like that you would think would be public business and in the interests of everybody to make public, but it doesn’t show up,” Lisac notes. Stelmach and Liepert hinted that additional medical services and procedures currently covered by Alberta’s health-care system may be delisted in the future, but their plans for changing the system remain shrouded in mystery. “One of the things they learned from the whole Third Way [health care] experience with Ralph Klein is they should not have a public process,” says the NDP’s Mason. “They shouldn’t consult the public and they shouldn’t ask their opinion because the public will tell them not to do it. What they have been trying to do is sneak up on the voters, sneak up on the citizens of Alberta, with their plans.”
Mason, who, along with Liberal Leader David Swann and Liberal seniors critic Bridget Pastoor, was physically barred from attending an Alberta Health announcement at Edmonton’s Government House in April, told the legislature after the exclusion that despite Stelmach’s vow to make his government more open and transparent, it has become “the most secretive and undemocratic government in Canada.” Although the health minister retorted in the legislature that Mason wasn’t invited to the press conference because it was for news media only, Stanway later said that banning three elected members of the Alberta legislature from a government building was inappropriate. “It shouldn’t have happened and it won’t happen again,” he said. The premier also issued an apology.
The Stelmach government has also been accused by critics of attempting to muzzle official watchdogs appointed by the legislature by curtailing their funding and firing them outright. Conservative MLAs who make up the majority of an all-party legislative committee recently voted against renewing the contract of chief electoral officer Lorne Gibson. Gibson had recommended that cabinet should not be appointing election deputy returning officers from party ranks. He had also recommended that candidates in party leadership races should be required to report the financial supporters of their campaigns – a recommendation made in the wake of the Tory leadership race after several candidates refused to disclose where their donations came from.
Gibson was blamed for a poorly organized provincial election, which saw the lowest voter turnout in Alberta history, but he claimed the government was so late in providing him with the names of its recommended deputy returning officers that he didn’t have enough time to get organized. During the election campaign, opposition party leaders complained that many of the deputy returning officers were card-carrying Conservative party members and that some were even constituency association executives. Gibson also noted that his office found a number of illegal donations made to all the political parties by entities, such as municipalities, that are not allowed to donate to political campaigns. He complained in his most recent report that Alberta Justice refused to prosecute them and he called for a better system to enforce election-financing rules. When Gibson’s contract was not renewed, Stelmach denied any involvement, saying it was a decision of the all-party committee.
Larry Booi, board chairman of Public Interest Alberta, an advocacy group for public services, says although the chief electoral officer was unsuccessful in persuading the government to embrace electoral reform, his advocacy group will spearhead a public campaign to raise awareness of the need for a more democratic process. “They can maybe fire the chief electoral officer, but they can’t fire us,” he says.
The provincial auditor general, Fred Dunn, has expressed frustration over what he calls stonewalling by senior Alberta Energy officials in 2007 when he tried to determine whether the government was securing a fair share of royalties for oil and gas resources. He accused department officials of giving him “the runaround” when he was trying to evaluate the department’s royalty systems. “The principles of transparency and accountability, I believe, were not followed,” Dunn told reporters at the time. Only through the inadvertent release of information to environmental advocate Martha Kostuch in late 2007 did the public learn that Alberta Energy officials knew years earlier that they could have been taking a larger royalty cut.
Dunn requested additional money to conduct an audit of the royalty regime and perform other important audits of government systems, but his funding request was denied. When he released his most recent report in April, he said the lack of funding will affect the future operation of his office. Opposition party leaders say the refusal to adequately fund the auditor general is a blatant effort to limit the scope of investigations that often embarrass the government.
Some of the most troubling examples of the government’s reluctance to share information are related to policy, legislation and political ideology more than the individual actions of any government member on any given day.
Alberta’s policy on protecting the names of children in its foster-care system is so extreme that it is against the law to publish the names of children, even after they have died in care. It is also against the law to publish the names of foster parents or anyone whose identity, if published, could identify the children in care. The law created a situation in Alberta recently in which the identities of both the killer and the victim were withheld from the public: the foster mother who killed a three-year-old child in her care cannot be named, and the public is also prevented from knowing the name of the boy who was slain. Other foster parents and parents of children who have died in care have protested the law, saying it shrouds the entire system in secrecy and prevents the public from getting at the truth.
NDP MLA Rachel Notley says the law serves mainly to protect the system that failed to protect the child. She wants the province to amend the legislation to at least give a judge the authority to release the name of the deceased child if it is deemed to be in the public interest. But Children and Youth Services Minister Janis Tarchuk says the foster-care system recently underwent a full review by a committee – composed largely of government officials and people who work in social services – and the issue of publishing names was not even raised. She says she is not considering any changes to the legislation to address that concern. “We’re always trying to balance the protection of the privacy of the individuals that we serve – both the children and their families – and the need to be transparent and accountable to Albertans. But we also feel privacy deserves attention, if there is a death, for surviving families,” Tarchuk explains. Other provinces also protect the identities of children in care, but those bans are usually lifted if a child dies.
Another government function that is the source of many complaints, ironically, is the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy legislation, or FOIPP – an acronym that some critics used to joke stood for “F-off, it’s private.”
Alberta’s privacy commissioner publicly rebuked the government in 2007 for deliberately ignoring a FOIPP request for its passenger flight manifests until after the 2004 provincial election. The documents, showing where, when and who was travelling on the government’s fleet of executive aircraft, had been requested by the media and the Liberals. The penalty imposed for holding back potentially damning documents until after the election? The responsible department was required to refund the fees charged for the documents that were delivered late.
However, some fallout from that case hangs over the Stelmach government today. RCMP are still attempting to determine who was responsible for altering a memo to change the date the information was required to be released. Alberta Justice says much of the information police seized from its offices during the investigation should be kept secret – protected by lawyer-client privilege. The access to information process has been so slow, expensive and ineffective that most mediausers see it as an exercise in futility. “The government will point to stats that say about 95 per cent of requests are handled, but anybody in the media who has dealt with it knows it would be almost miraculous to see a response in less than 30 days,” says Lisac.
Booi says his organization tried to use the law to find out what the government did with $26 million it received from the federal government for child care. It eventually received 50 pages of documents, but 80 per cent of the content was blanked out.
Some private citizens haven’t had much better luck using the legislation to find out basic information. Jessica Ernst of Rosebud has been trying since 2006 to obtain information from government inspections of a water well that has been poisoned with methane gas. Her well has become so contaminated she can literally set fire to the water. “It doesn’t just light on fire; it explodes like a rocket,” says the 52-year-old scientist, who has spent more than $4,000 in fees to examine testing data from her well and others in the area. She believes the wells have been affected by coal bed methane drilling, but she says much of the data she eventually received is useless because the province blacked out the legal land descriptions of the wells.
“I am exhausted trying to get what is supposed to be public data,” she says.
Ernst complains that the freedom of information system is broken and no one seems too concerned about fixing it. “Every time I hear Mr. Stelmach and his team promise accountability and transparency, I clench my fists because it’s not true,” she says. “Mr. Stelmach may mean well, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Powerful unions in Alberta have had no better luck with FOIPP. Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says his union is still trying to obtain information about who hires children aged 12 to 14 to work in Alberta and what companies have the worst records for health and safety violations. “Information that in other provinces would be tabled in public as a matter of course is kept behind a veil of secrecy in Alberta,” he says.
Alberta Service Minister Heather Klimchuk says the FOIPP system is working well and people who are not satisfied with it can appeal its decisions to the privacy commissioner. “I am happy with the process because people’s requests are handled quickly and efficiently,” she says. “I think we have a good system in place – not to say we can’t make improvements – but I think, ultimately, access to information is very important for our citizens.” She says she can’t comment on specific cases involving specific departments, but says government departments make their decisions on whether information should be released “based on the best available information they have in front of them.”
Former Calgary Conservative MLA Jon Lord, who once introduced a private member’s bill calling for more openness in politics, suggests Stelmach may have bitten off more than he can chew with his promise to throw open the doors of government. “I think he’s certainly working hard to do his best, but it is not always easy to put everything out into the public eye,” says Lord, who served as an MLA from 2000 to 2004.
“He is honest. He is there with good intentions. He is very sincere. He wants to do what is best to make the world a better place. But politics is a tough business. You can’t always deliver 100 per cent of what you would like because it turns out to be more complicated than that.”
Lord, a former Calgary alderman who works now as a stockbroker, says the public expects private business to keep its cards close to its chest, so it’s a lot to ask of government “to be playing poker with all your cards face up on the table. I think people that aren’t that familiar with how government works have very high expectations and they are perhaps a little unrealistic.”
However, Stanway, in the premier’s office, says Stelmach has delivered on his promises and will continue to do so because he believes it is the right thing to do.
“The premier made that commitment with his eyes wide open,” says Stanway, a former Edmonton Sun newspaper executive and political columnist. “It’s not that he is surprised that people are taking it seriously. He expected it.”
Stanway says the lobbyist registry will be running by this fall. As for the NDP’s claim the Stelmach government is the most secretive government in Canada, Stanway dismisses the charge as overblown rhetoric. “Brian Mason has never seen a fire he didn’t want to throw gasoline on. Just because Brian says it, doesn’t make it right. In fact, if Brian says it, it is not right,” says Stanway.
Liberal Leader David Swann says he was initially encouraged when Stelmach introduced a number of new legislative all-party committees to review legislation, but he has been disappointed to see how they work in practice – with “heavy conservative dominance on these committees, voting results are blocked in a very partisan process.” Rather than debating the province’s plans for health-care reform – plans that are being made public only in dribs and drabs – or discussing the viability of nuclear energy or the threat of indus-trial development to the province’s underground water supply, the committees are assigned non-controversial issues, Swann says. The committee he sits on has been debating issues like bottle recycling and weed control.
“We’re not getting at some of the vital questions Albertans have about where our money is going,” he complains. “If we were really addressing some of the key issues facing Albertans, I would feel better about what these all-party committees are doing.”
Former Liberal leader Kevin Taft says after 38 years of Conservative rule, the province is filled with Tories in key positions who all have the authority to keep things secret. “It’s a serious case of political decay,” says Taft. “One of the things that could happen with this economic downturn, if it is sharp and prolonged, is the gap between the elite and the reality will get exposed. So far it has been covered over by resource wealth.”
Snelgrove, of the Treasury Board, says the government is striving to make as much information publicly available as possible, but it is difficult to do so while respecting privacy issues. He says it hasn’t been a hot-button issue for most Albertans.
“I will say this: Of all the meetings that I have gone to and all the speaking situations I have done where there’s been an opportunity to ask questions, no one has ever asked me about openness and transparency.”
Chaldeans Mensah, who teaches political science at MacEwan College, says the public wants more openness from governments, but quite often there is a disconnect between the promises politicians make before entering office and reality.
“I have no doubt Ed Stelmach is committed to some of these principles, but is he willing to follow through or is he going to be captive to the practical side of actual governing? I think transparency, disclosure and accountability are all wrapped up in one package, and for all of these ideas to come to fruition, it will take a concerted effort by the public, the media and other politicians.”
Booi says many Albertans feel betrayed be-cause they believed Stelmach’s pledge to bring in a more accountable government. “It’s beyond disappointing,” says Booi. “But there’s an old saying: ‘You don’t ask a king to make a revolution.'”