Critics accuse Ontario government of rampant secrecy
TORONTO - Critics are accusing Ontario's Liberals of becoming more secretive, despite their claims of making the government more open and transparent.
Liberals on the finance committee used their majority Thursday to give hospitals an exemption from the freedom of information law for data on "quality of care," an exemption they buried deep in the 2011 provincial budget.
The Ontario Health Coalition, a patient advocacy group, said the Liberals "snuck" a clause into the budget that had nothing to do with finances, but amounts to a "blanket FOI exemption" for hospitals.
"We're calling it the hospital secrecy clause," said the coalition's Natalie Mehra. "It really is a very uneven attempt to protect hospitals from having to disclose embarrassing information to the public."
However, Health Minister Deb Matthews said it was a "very narrow" exemption so health care professionals and other hospital staff can frankly discuss problems without concerns the information will become public. The Liberals are the first to extend freedom of information rules to cover hospitals, she added.
"We did not go as far as the Ontario Hospital Association and the Ontario Medical Association wanted us to go, which was a full exclusion where you can't even request the information," said Matthews.
The Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats also blasted the Liberals for hiding a clause in the budget that they claimed "promoted a secretive approach to health care," and said it was only one example of the government's penchant for secrecy.
The Liberals were also under fire Thursday for a secret deal giving the Ontario Public Service Employees Union a one per cent wage hike next year on top of the two per cent increase in their contract.
"There are a lot of secret deals here, and I think this is just the tip of the iceberg," said Opposition critic Peter O'Toole.
The deal to give the 38,000 union members an extra one per cent without informing the public was reached in 2008, but only came to light this week at a labour board hearing.
"It was a side letter and government does need the ability to bargain (in private) because once you do it in public your position is compromised," said Finance Minister Dwight Duncan.
Last week, former Ontario chief justice Roy McMurtry criticized the Liberals for passing a secret law governing police powers during the G20 summit in Toronto, which he said was so vague it was wide open to abuse.
"The Public Works Protection Act raises issues regarding the liberty and security of the person in providing for warrantless searches and stopping for identification," McMurtry wrote in his report. "(The) potential for abuse is beyond troubling, to say the least."
The Liberals refuse to apologize for passing the G20 law in secret, and have said only that they could have done a better job informing the public about the exact nature of the powers they granted the 20,000 officers who patrolled Toronto during the summit.
More than 1,100 people were arrested and detained during the G20 weekend after what Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin said was a "premeditated, conscious decision" by the Liberals to keep the extra police powers secret from the public.
The Opposition is still fuming over what they call the Liberals' secret $7-billion green energy deal with Korean giant Samsung.
Most of the Samsung deal has been made public, said Energy Minister Brad Duguid, except for "commercially sensitive" sections that will be released after Samsung builds new plants in Ontario to manufacture components for green energy projects.
The NDP also pointed out the Liberals were caught again this year hiding high salaries of some top level bureaucrats in the budgets of local hospitals instead of in the Ministry of Health budget. The Liberals had promised to fix that, but instead published the salaries in two different areas of the sunshine list of public sector people paid over $100,000.
"For a government that likes to crow about transparency and accountability, we've seen exactly the opposite," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. "Whether it's the secret G20 law, whether it's the refusal to disclose severance packages of CEOs on the sunshine list, whether it's the FOI process for hospitals, the Samsung deal, the list goes on and on and on."
Opposition Leader Tim Hudak echoed Horwath's concerns.
"This is clearly a government that has been around too long and is now protecting itself rather than protecting the taxpayers who pay the bills," said Hudak.