Linking the suppression of these budgetary details to the federal government's refusal to turn over documents that would either absolve or implicate Canadian Forces in the abuse of Afghan detainees, Brison stated that "[w]ithholding this information impedes Parliament's ability to fulfill its duty to scrutinize the estimates, and that is a breach of the House's privilege".
Given the history of government secrecy on the 'just us' file, it is about time that a question of privilege on this matter be tabled.
In 2010, the minority 'Conservative' Government of Canada refused to disclose cost estimates related to the implementation of a number of bills (e.g. C-4, C-16, C-21, C-39, S-6, S-9 and S-10) that Liberal Public Safety Critic Mark Holland requested in an Order-of-Paper question tabled in October 2010 citing "Cabinet Confidence" (see Question No. 470).
This administration also refused to disclose their projections related to the implementation of the 'Truth in Sentencing' Act (2009) to Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer of Canada (read 22 June 2010 post), whose mandate "is to provide independent analysis to Parliament on the state of the nation's finances, the government's estimates and trends in the Canadian economy; and upon request from a committee or parliamentarian, to estimate the financial cost of any proposal for matters over which Parliament has jurisdiction".
That the current Government of Canada continues to deny the right of Canadian taxpayers to know the full financial costs of their punishment agenda hardly surprises me. After all, this is the government whose Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews once stated that "I'd rather not share my idea on that" when asked about the overall cost of their 'just us' bills (read 28 April 2010 article by Janice Tibbetts).
While I compiled penal infrastructure data from provincial and territorial (PT) governments across the country, for whom I wrote an unsolicited report entitled "An Overview of Prison Expansion in Canada" that I presented at the May 2010 bi-annual meeting of the PT Heads of Corrections in Ottawa (read presentation notes here), the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) refused to disclose their prison expansion plans to me both over the phone and in response to several of my Access to Information (ATI) requests, often citing "Cabinet Confidence" (read 14 April 2010 post).
My odyssey with CSC continues today. On 25 June 2010, I submitted the following ATI request (#A-2010-00165) to CSC:
...all requests produced or held by CSC related to the development of the project definition plan / P3 [public-private-partnership] assessment referred to in the organization's documents, the development of a planning concept for regional complexes, the preparation of a business case for a specific delivery model (financing model) for regional complexes, and the development of a corresponding national accommodation strategy. I am also requesting all records pertaining to the criteria of all capital projects were screened against and the Capital Plan Review which was accepted by EXCOM [Executive Committee] in January 2009. Date range: January 1, 2008 to June 18, 2010.
The following is a timeline of what has happened on this file to date:
30 June 2010: The CSC ATIP Division acknowledged the receipt of my request.
12 July 2010: The CSC ATIP Division requested that I deposit 50 percent of the costs ($50) for searching and retrieving the records I sought.
7 October 2010: The CSC ATIP Division advised that "an extension of up to 180 days is required to process your request beyond the 30-day statutory limit as consultation with another government department are necessary. Consultations are required with the Privy Council Office [PCO]. The new statutory release date for your request in February 4, 2011".
15 December 2010: A CSC ATIP Analyst sent an e-mail following our telephone conversation noting that "[m]any of the records that are relevant to this request have been sent to PCO for review. There is usually an approximate turnaround time of 6 months which may mean you will not receive a response until June 2011. You have indicated that you wish to proceed with the processing of these records but would like to receive a partial release in the interim for those records which do not require consultation with PCO. We can do a partial release once we have conducted a review of those records not being sent to PCO and the necessary consultations on the records have been completed".
A month and a half later, I have yet to see any records pertaining to CSC's long-term accommodation plan, which could include a proposal for the construction of new penitentiaries. Given that the submission of this report is to take place in March 2011 (see Order-of-Paper Q-471), this development is troubling in that it does not afford Canadian taxpayers the opportunity to have access to information related to this proposal and to debate its merits while it is being considered by the federal government. However, given the potential expenditures involved (see section 3 of the Deloitte "Independent review of the cost estimate for the construction and operation of a new corrections facility" in the 2007 CSC Review Panel Report), it is understandable that the tax cutting and big spending 'Conservatives' would not want such information in the public domain as the Minister of Finance, Jim Flaherty, has promised that upcoming federal budgets will not involve the introduction of new massive spending programs.
But not to worry... we Canadians, after all, are willing to pay the price for a ballooning prison population and shiny, new federal penal infrastructure according to the 'Conservatives'. Apparently, the Feds can tell us what to think, but just not tell us the facts. The question is why. What is the "government that rode into Ottawa on the horse of accountability" and transparency so worried about?
Where the costs of their punishment bills are concerned, it may be the case that the federal government and its agencies have little idea of how many new prisoners these sentencing measures will generate and the related costs. In a recent memorandum to the Minister of Public Safety dated 1 September 2010, the author stated that a report presented to "Deputy Ministers in June 2009" noted that the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Cumulate Impact Working Group's "costing tools had not yet achieved consistency" (see slide show below, pp. 17-18). This could explain in part why the federal government's original estimate to implement the 'Truth in Sentencing' Act was revised from $90 million to $2 billion in April 2010 (read 27 April 2010 article by Kathryn May), and that it was noted in an e-mail exchange between Public Safety Canada officials that "Bureaucrats may share the blame as they did not make appropriate analysis and provided inadequate cost estimates for this legislation" (see slide show below, p. 10).
In light of this, one has to wonder whether the 'Conservatives' are not releasing the costs of their punishment bills to parliamentarians while they debate their merits to avoid acknowledging the fact that the size of the penal pork barrel and length of the 'law and order' gravy train is still not known. Protected under the banner of "Cabinet Confidence", this mystery is one that could easily be solved with a main course of transparency and a side of honest debate served fresh by the federal government.
Brison noted that "[w]hen it comes to the cost of justice bills, this information would have been part of the Memorandum to Cabinet for each bill, but the Access to Information Act makes it clear that the background information for these bills are not a Cabinet confidence once the bills are introduced to Parliament". He then concluded that the "government's refusal to provide that information constitutes a breach of the House's privilege and a contempt of Parliament".
In the coming days, the 'Conservatives' will be preparing a "comprehensive response" to the complaints made by Brison (read article by the Canadian Press). Once the response is tabled, House Speaker Peter Milliken will likely have to once again rule on whether or not Parliamentarians, and by extension Canadians, have the right to know such information as they vote on 'Conservative' punishment bills that have been widely criticized as unnecessary in a time of declining police-reported 'crime' rates, wasteful in the context of colossal budgetary deficits, and ineffective at enhancing safety in jurisdictions where similar measures have been enacted.
This Milliken ruling, just like the Afghan detainee documents decision, has the potential to significantly alter the terrain of public policy debates in Canada should the Speaker of the House rule in favour of Brison. Whether opposition parties would actually take advantage of such a decision, and vote down socially corrosive and treasury depleting punishment bills on mass, is another question.
Public Safety Canada ATI Request #A-2010-00017