Hot! Kathleen Wynne’s promise of open government will be a tough sell – opinion/editorials – Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is kicking a can uphill with her open government initiative in the wake of the $1.1-billion gas plant scandal.
Oct 21 2013.   Editorial

Welcome as Premier Kathleen Wynne’s new “open government” transparency initiative is, she’s kicking a can uphill trying to persuade Ontarians that it’s more than a just a gambit to recoup Liberal political ground lost to the gas plant scandal. Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak quickly wrote it off as sheer hypocrisy. And reaction from the wider community was skeptical at best.

Don’t talk about openness, some Ontarians seemed to say, just get on with it. “For heaven’s sake, how difficult is it to be transparent and honest?” one Star reader asked. Liberal ears should be burning.

There’s a lot to like in Wynne’s pledge to “do government differently,” and her view that “data belongs to the people” not the bureaucracy and should be “easier to find, understand and use.” Still, convincing the public that the Liberals are sincere won’t be easy. After all, it took a $1.1-billion fiasco to get us to this epiphany.

As the Star’s Robert Benzie first reported, Wynne now promises to give Ontarians a “greater say” on key issues ranging from transit decisions to regional economic development and government spending. The public will have more information on what Queen’s Park is thinking and doing. And Ontarians will have greater access to hard statistical data on subjects such as big-city gridlock, health-care wait times and student achievement.

It’s an approach inspired by British Columbia’s trend-setting DataBC service, launched in 2011. That model provides “reliable, authoritative data” on a wide range of topics ranging from provincial spending and budgets to popular names for girls and school exam results. It has been well received.

To translate her good intentions into policy Wynne has set up a blue-ribbon Open Government Engagement Team chaired by Don Lenihan, an expert on democracy and public engagement. The panel will report back next spring on ways to promote “open dialogue” (getting more input from the public), on “open data” (making government statistics available) and on “open information” (increasing government transparency). But the panel can do only so much.

The fiasco that sank Dalton McGuinty’s premiership and exposed the Liberals to a public shellacking was more than a ghastly waste of money. It was a cynical betrayal of trust. As New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath tartly observed, the Liberals had to be dragged “kicking and screaming” to account. They still face allegations that they hid information on the cancellation of the two gas-fired power plants, lowballed the costs, deleted emails and resisted producing documents related to the cancellations. All for the sake of saving a few seats at Queen’s Park.

Plugging that trust gap won’t be easy. All governments make bad decisions, and are tempted to deny them and cover up. Bad ones go to great lengths to cover their tracks. If the Wynne government is sincere about doing things differently, it will welcome exponentially more scrutiny and accountability than its predecessor. Until then Ontarians can be forgiven for reserving judgment.

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