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Cabinet confidential: Canada’s system of government is inherently flawed

The Yukon government has a chance to make real change — but it probably won’t
To know why Yukon governments do the things they do, you only have to wait a decade. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)

What advice did the retinue of well-paid senior bureaucrats give Premier Sandy Silver about carbon pricing?

You’re not allowed to know.

What advice did this august, cloistered corps of experienced civil servants — all of whom are way smarter than you and me — give justice minister Tracy-Anne McPhee about problems at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre?

You’re not allowed to know.

What advice did the experts at the Department of Economic Development, at least one of whom used to work for Northwestel, give minister Ranj Pillai about which fibre optic line was the best option for Yukoners?

You’re not allowed to know.

What advice did staff at the Department of Community Services, all well-versed in the safest way for boxes to move up and down, give minister John Streicker, or his predecessors, about the rules governing elevator safety?

You may sense a pattern here.

If you’re patient, you can wait 10 years for the records to be archived, at which point they become open for public perusal.

But — with a few noble exceptions, including historians and other researchers — who cares?

A decade from now is way too late to hold politicians accountable for their decisions. And this doesn’t just apply to the current Liberal government.

The former Yukon Party government has all kinds of files buried in filing cabinets and databases that would doubtless make for very interesting reading.

It would be fascinating to know the full scope of what Community Services staff told then-minister Archie Lang when he ordered them to help the Mountain View golf course — whose board at the time included one Darrell Pasloski, soon to become the Yukon Party leader and premier — get out of debt.

Juicy reading indeed. Too bad we’ll have to wait until 2021.

Or how about all the cabinet deliberations surrounding the Yukon Party government’s handling of the Peel Watershed fiasco? Get yourself some popcorn and clear your schedule — in 2024.

How does this happen? Cabinet confidentiality, taken as an inviolable bedrock principle of British (and therefore Canadian) governance, dictates that the reasoning that goes into the most important decisions our governments make, must be done in near-total secrecy.

This rests on a shaky assumption that has been taken as given by the bureaucrats who benefit most from secrecy: that politicians and civil servants cannot speak freely, cannot spitball ideas if they know the public will soon find out what they said.

I recently encountered this argument from the Yukon’s Department of Community Services. The department won’t release advice to the minister about elevator safety regulations. I filed a complaint to the Information and Privacy Commissioner about that and the department responded with an eye-glazing 22-page treatise on the importance of cabinet confidentiality.

“The reasons (for confidentiality) are obvious,” writes Ellen Andison, the department’s records and information management lead.

“Those charged with the heavy responsibility of making government decisions must be free to discuss all aspects of the problems that come before them and to express all manner of views, without fear that what they read, say or act on later will be subject to public scrutiny.”

This is stated as a self-evident fact, but there’s no answer to the question of why it must be so. The suggestion here is that the most important government work cannot be known to the public because the public might get angry.

First off, another word for that is accountability. For another, the public is already angry at a system of government that it rightly sees as an impenetrable morass of bureaucratic nonsense that all too often feels no need to explain its actions to the people who pay civil servants’ salaries.

Andison goes on to suggest that cabinet members “might shy away from stating unpopular opinions, or from making comments that might be considered politically incorrect.” If someone in the cabinet room is, say, spewing racial slurs during a discussion about, say, procurement policy, that is absolutely an urgent matter of public interest.

Finally, the Westminster tradition is obsessed with the notion that cabinet must at all times be in public lockstep, as if a room full of educated adults, with different work histories, representing different geographic areas, would all happen to believe the exact same thing — often down to the canned sentences that are manufactured from whole cloth for government news releases — about any given issue.

“Members of cabinet who disagree with the decisions it makes have to pretend they agree in public,” wrote access to information scholar Sean Holman recently. “And that means they may have to lie to the very people who elected them.”

We have no idea how often that happens, because cabinet deliberations are secret.

The Yukon government has an opportunity to break with this obsolete tradition when it overhauls the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act this fall. A few subjects can be kept legitimately in camera — matters discussing personal information, legal advice or security, for example.

There’s no reason why cabinet deliberations cannot be made available to the public in short order, rather like Hansard, which transcribes proceedings in the legislature.

No reason, that is, beyond the fact that Canada’s political classes are quite happy working largely in secret, thank you very much. At the bare minimum, the government should ensure that cabinet deliberations are made public within the four-to-five year legislative term. Release after 12 months would be acceptable.

The likelihood of this actually happening is low. The bureaucracy here retains enormous power and rarely do bureaucracies surrender such power voluntarily. Whatever the government does, the odds are we won’t know the real reason for its decision for years to come.

Contact Chris Windeyer at