HEIMPEL: Here’s why mandate letters need to stay private

Article originally published in Toronto Sun

One of the best jobs I got in my early political career was helping the Ontario PC Caucus go through tens of thousands of gas plant documents.

There were about a half dozen of us. We locked ourselves in a boardroom over a weekend, appearing only intermittently to pay the pizza guy or replenish the coffee supply.

A lot of what we found ended up on nightly newscasts, or on the pages of papers like this one.

Truly transparent government is a thing to behold. It gives you a great window into how decisions get made, and an even better window into how they don’t.

As a practice, Canadian governments are bad at transparency. There are exceptions. But more and more frequently we have media reporting on the understaffing of departments when it comes to access to information requests, longer timelines and — everyone’s favourite — more black ink redactions.

Cabinet confidence should only go so far, and governments of all stripes have stretched it to cover a myriad of sins. But cabinet confidence should absolutely cover correspondence between two members of Cabinet on decisions and discussions related to the priorities and actions of the government. And that, at their core, is what mandate letters are.

The Ford government is right to defend their confidentiality all the way to the Supreme Court.

First, making them transparent doesn’t make the government any better. A good mandate letter is a list of no less than three and probably no more than five key priorities for the government to achieve over the course of the next term. They’re written in concise language with clear action and deliverables, including anticipated timelines.

This means things will get left out. That’s because an effective government realizes the finite resources of time and human ability. It is simply not possible to do everything.

Make them public, however, and you get a talking point-laden laundry list of drivel void of timelines and actual accountability. Look at the mandate letter sent to federal Minister Melanie Joly after the last election: 21 priorities, six sub-priorities, not a single date or timeline.

This is for a minority government, the lifespan of which in this country is usually two years. This is simply an unrealistic view of government, and it demonstrates an incredible lack of focus.

But it’s a great issues management exercise, which is what “transparent” mandate letters are. A way of transacting government to make sure nobody causes a fuss. As a result, mandate letters now make more news for what isn’t in them as opposed to what is.

This is driven by opposition point-scoring. Famously, the word “inflation” appears nowhere in Chrystia Freeland’s most recent mandate letter. I can promise everyone, the Department of Finance is probably spending more time on inflation — and its effects — than literally any other issue at the moment.

So, we have mandate letters that are public but no longer tell us anything about the government’s priorities. This ought to render them useless as an exercise in government transparency, right?

Not so, gentle reader. Because what it does is allow a government to publicly brag about its transparency. In the last month alone, no less than three Ministers have shown up at Committee with an answer that references the name-dropping of a certain issue in their mandate letter as an action of the government and proof that an issue is being taken seriously.

All this has happened after the Trudeau government took the unprecedented step of suing parliament to keep documents secret. It’s a kind of white-out-washing. Public mandate letters help a government believe in its transparency credentials, even when everything else is redacted … or delayed by years.

We now have a practice that doesn’t improve government accountability internally, doesn’t improve government transparency externally, and forces us into a tedious, box-checking issues management exercise.

If you want mandate letters to be valuable, keep them between the person sending them, and the person receiving them. But if you like more government-by-performance-art, then “public” mandates are absolutely your jam.

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