The Trudeau Liberals have a transparency problem, says CTF

Aaron Wudrick,
Federal Director
Canadian Taxpayers Federation

When news broke recently that Rana Sarkar had been appointed as Canada’s consul-general to San Francisco at a salary somewhere north of $220,000 – well above the official pay range which tops out at $140,000 – the Prime Minister’s principal adviser, Gerald Butts, took to Twitter to defend his friend, noting that Sarkar was a highly qualified candidate and was, in fact, taking a pay cut to help serve his country.

Set aside for the moment the fact that Sarkar happens to be a well-connected Liberal. Set aside too the fact that by twice seeking to become an elected Member of Parliament at a salary of about $170,000, Sarkar implicitly seemed prepared to work for that amount.

Supposing Sarkar’s particular skill set is indeed worth making a special exception, the obvious question is why the government didn’t just make that case in advance, rather than waiting until they got caught.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they simply tried to slip it through quietly and hope nobody noticed.

Such wishful thinking on transparency seems to be a troubling pattern for the Trudeau government and is perhaps one of the most surprising – and understated – features of their track record in government so far.

It’s fair to say that few expected the Trudeau government to be fiscally conservative – they even ran on “modest” temporary deficits, which have since ballooned into much larger, indefinite ones. But they also ran on an admirable list of transparency promises, such as updating the Access to Information Act (ATI), forswearing the using of omnibus legislation, and ensuring the proactive release of expense claims.

They got off to a good start by publishing ministerial mandate letters, ending excess ATI fees while promising a full review of the outdated legislation, and banning partisan government advertising.

But from there it’s been pretty much downhill on the transparency front.

They repealed a law requiring greater financial transparency from unions, and then announced they would not enforce the First Nations Financial Transparency Act – a critical law that ensures First Nations people have the same right as all other Canadians to see how their elected politicians are being compensated and spending their money.

While in opposition, the Liberals (rightly) criticized the Harper government’s use of omnibus bills, arguing they left insufficient time for Parliament to study every measure properly. But once in government, they tabled a 300-page omnibus budget bill, cramming in everything from new infrastructure bank legislation to changes to the Food and Drug Act and the Veterans Affairs Act.

They broke their promise to extend the ATI to the Prime Minister’s Office and cabinet ministers, and punted on their promise to review the law until at least 2018.

Then there is the matter of last year’s flurry of dubious expenses, including Environment Minister Catherine McKenna’s $6,600 photography bill, then-Health Minister Jane Philpott’s $3,700 car service and top Trudeau aides Butts’ and Katie Telford’s moving expenses (to their credit, Philpott repaid all and Butts and Telford repaid some of the money).

And while the opposition parties were happy to score political points off these scandalettes, the critical step from a taxpayer standpoint would be to fix the rules to prevent similar incidents in the future.

But one year on, and the government has yet to propose any substantive changes to the rules.

It’s easy to talk a big game about transparency when you’re in opposition. But the real test comes once you have the power to implement your commitments.

On the transparency front, the Trudeau government’s actions simply do not match their words.

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