What is Doug Ford hiding in his mandate letters to government ministers?

Posted on August 4, 2022 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors:

TheStar.com – Opinion
Aug. 4, 2022.   By Bob Hepburn, Star Columnist

Ford is so desperate to keep the letters secret that he’s waging a costly legal battle to prevent their release.

“We’re working in a vacuum!”

That blunt statement, uttered with passion — and frustration — by a policy analyst in one of Ontario’s biggest government ministries was a harsh condemnation of their ultimate boss, Premier Doug Ford.

Speaking with me at a recent gathering, the analyst complained about how hard it is to do their work without knowing what Ford’s priorities are for their ministry following the Conservatives’ re-election in early June.

“Our deputy minister knows and tries to verbally explain them to us, but without the mandate letters it’s impossible to figure out what Ford really wants to do and when he wants to do it,” the analyst added.

Ever since he became premier in 2018, Ford has refused to let the public see his mandate letters to his cabinet ministers.

Indeed, Ford is so desperate to keep the letters secret that he’s waging a costly legal battle to prevent their release. It’s a fight he has lost all the way to Ontario’s top court and is now appealing to the Supreme Court of Canada.

I always knew Ford wants to keep the Ontario public in the dark about his plans. But I didn’t realize that he’s also keeping the letters secret even from key bureaucrats who help analyze and formulate government policy.

Such secrecy is why many government officials — as well as the public — were caught off guard by Ford’s recent decision to grant the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa more powers, including the right to veto city council decisions.

The announcement seemingly came out of nowhere because Ford had never mentioned it on the campaign trail this spring or at any time during his first term as premier. Was it in the mandate letter given in June to Steve Clark when he was sworn in again as minister of municipal affairs? Was it in the 2018 mandate letter to Clark when he first became minister? Who knows?

Importantly, what other surprises does Ford have in store for Ontario? What else is he hiding?

Mandate letters are among the most significant documents that a premier or prime minister prepares at the start of their term in office. They are the official instructions given to each cabinet member outlining the specific priorities that their ministries will focus on. Think of them as basic “to-do” lists.

Kathleen Wynne was the first Ontario premier to release mandate letters. “Making mandate letters public makes it easier for people to see what we are working on, and how we can work together to build better lives for everyone across Ontario,” she said in releasing her 2014 mandate letters.

Wynne’s 2014 and 2016 mandate letters are still available on the Ontario government website.

Some Ford supporters defend his decision to keep the letters private, arguing that government confidentiality is vital to the operation of any government. They also suggest the letters are nothing more than warmed-over election promises.

Ford insists the content of the letters isn’t secret at all. “Everyone knows where we stand,” he said during a campaign stop in May when the Supreme Court announced it will hear Ontario’s appeal to stop the release of the letters. “It’s going to be very, very clear what we’re doing,” he added.

But John Milloy, a former Liberal cabinet minister for both Wynne and Dalton McGuinty and now the director of the Centre for Public Ethics at Martin Luther University College in Waterloo, says mandate letters are critical in helping voters hold the government to account on the jobs it sets for itself.

In an opinion column in the Toronto Star in April, Milloy also argued that “understanding the priorities and direction of a government can be of great assistance to those attempting to shape public policy both within and outside of government.”

I’m sure the policy analyst who spoke of working in a vacuum fully agrees. So should all Ontarians.


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