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CBC claims state secrets on costs in court case about state secrets

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CBC is fighting to get government information released but is also refusing to release information citing state secrets.

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CBC is claiming state secrets when asked about the cost of a Supreme Court battle over getting information on government secrets. Canada’s state broadcaster has been pushing Ontario Premier Doug Ford to release the mandate letters given to his cabinet ministers since 2018.

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Yet, a request for details on costs to CBC resulted in the release of a one-page, mostly redacted document where CBC claimed releasing the information would be detrimental to the government agency.

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It’s a bit rich to cite such clauses while fighting another government on them, isn’t it?

It started with a CBC reporter submitting a request under the provincial Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) for copies of the letters. These letters, which some governments release publicly and some don’t, contain the expectations the government has for each minister in their file.

The Ford government refused to release the letters, citing cabinet confidentiality under Section 12(1) of the FIPPA.

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“A head shall refuse to disclose a record where the disclosure would reveal the substance of deliberations of the Executive Council or its committees,” the section states.

CBC appealed to the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, which found in favour of CBC. The Ford government still refused to release the letters and has taken the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which heard the case earlier this year and is now deliberating.

While the government is arguing the importance of cabinet confidence, an important part of our democracy — it allows for open and frank deliberations within cabinet — the attempt to get the letter by CBC is a bit pointless now, someone leaked them all to Global.

Global News has been releasing the letters one at a time and to be honest, they don’t tell us much we didn’t already know. For the most part, mandate letters are glorified press releases that allow the government of the day to sing their own praises and express lofty goals but they aren’t informative.

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Which is why it was a puzzle that the Ford government would spend so much time and effort to keep them secret – there is nothing interesting about them – and why CBC would spend so much time and money to get them released.

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After Global broke the story of the leaked letters, CBC ran a story saying that Crown lawyers had spent 1,672 taxpayer-funded hours working on the case between July 2018 and July 2021.

It’s interesting that they could receive that much detail because a request to CBC for documents “showing all costs associated with pursuing the release of the Government of Ontario mandate letters,” returned one page with most of the information removed.

In the end, CBC only agreed to release the total cost of the outside lawyers they hired to fight the case. The total cost so far has been $107,636.

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There is no breakdown by year, no breakdown by hour, no other information is offered up.

In their response, CBC cited Sec. 18(b) of the federal Access to Information Act to hold back the data. That section says that a government institution may refuse to release information “which could reasonably be expected to prejudice the competitive position of a government institution.”

CBC is refusing to release information on their court battle to get access to government information by saying that releasing their information would put them in a bad spot. They also invoked solicitor-client privilege, which doesn’t really apply to costs unless you are trying to hide things.

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In the end, CBC did disclose how many hours have been billed, not through the freedom-of-information system but in their own story one of their spokespeople said outside lawyers had billed for 750 hours.

That’s significantly lower than the Ford government’s 1,672, but here’s why the comparison isn’t fair.

For a start, CBC didn’t reveal how much time their in-house legal team spent on this case, nor other departments of the broadcaster. Secondly, CBC isn’t the lead on this court battle, that would be the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

Meaning, we have three different taxpayer-funded organizations in court over the release of mandate letters that told us nothing in the end — and one of them is also refusing to release information about that court battle, citing the same secretive government moves they are fighting in court.

The big loser in all of this is the taxpayer.

CBC Access to Information Records
CBC is refusing to release information on how much they are spending in court to fight government secrecy.

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CBC is fighting to get government information released but is also refusing to release information citing state secrets.

Get the latest from Brian Lilley straight to your inbox

Article content

CBC is claiming state secrets when asked about the cost of a Supreme Court battle over getting information on government secrets. Canada’s state broadcaster has been pushing Ontario Premier Doug Ford to release the mandate letters given to his cabinet ministers since 2018.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Yet, a request for details on costs to CBC resulted in the release of a one-page, mostly redacted document where CBC claimed releasing the information would be detrimental to the government agency.

Article content

It’s a bit rich to cite such clauses while fighting another government on them, isn’t it?

It started with a CBC reporter submitting a request under the provincial Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) for copies of the letters. These letters, which some governments release publicly and some don’t, contain the expectations the government has for each minister in their file.

The Ford government refused to release the letters, citing cabinet confidentiality under Section 12(1) of the FIPPA.

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

“A head shall refuse to disclose a record where the disclosure would reveal the substance of deliberations of the Executive Council or its committees,” the section states.

CBC appealed to the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, which found in favour of CBC. The Ford government still refused to release the letters and has taken the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which heard the case earlier this year and is now deliberating.

While the government is arguing the importance of cabinet confidence, an important part of our democracy — it allows for open and frank deliberations within cabinet — the attempt to get the letter by CBC is a bit pointless now, someone leaked them all to Global.

Global News has been releasing the letters one at a time and to be honest, they don’t tell us much we didn’t already know. For the most part, mandate letters are glorified press releases that allow the government of the day to sing their own praises and express lofty goals but they aren’t informative.

Advertisement 4

Article content

Which is why it was a puzzle that the Ford government would spend so much time and effort to keep them secret – there is nothing interesting about them – and why CBC would spend so much time and money to get them released.

Recommended video

We apologize, but this video has failed to load.

After Global broke the story of the leaked letters, CBC ran a story saying that Crown lawyers had spent 1,672 taxpayer-funded hours working on the case between July 2018 and July 2021.

It’s interesting that they could receive that much detail because a request to CBC for documents “showing all costs associated with pursuing the release of the Government of Ontario mandate letters,” returned one page with most of the information removed.

In the end, CBC only agreed to release the total cost of the outside lawyers they hired to fight the case. The total cost so far has been $107,636.

Advertisement 5

Article content

There is no breakdown by year, no breakdown by hour, no other information is offered up.

In their response, CBC cited Sec. 18(b) of the federal Access to Information Act to hold back the data. That section says that a government institution may refuse to release information “which could reasonably be expected to prejudice the competitive position of a government institution.”

CBC is refusing to release information on their court battle to get access to government information by saying that releasing their information would put them in a bad spot. They also invoked solicitor-client privilege, which doesn’t really apply to costs unless you are trying to hide things.

Advertisement 6

Article content

In the end, CBC did disclose how many hours have been billed, not through the freedom-of-information system but in their own story one of their spokespeople said outside lawyers had billed for 750 hours.

That’s significantly lower than the Ford government’s 1,672, but here’s why the comparison isn’t fair.

For a start, CBC didn’t reveal how much time their in-house legal team spent on this case, nor other departments of the broadcaster. Secondly, CBC isn’t the lead on this court battle, that would be the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

Meaning, we have three different taxpayer-funded organizations in court over the release of mandate letters that told us nothing in the end — and one of them is also refusing to release information about that court battle, citing the same secretive government moves they are fighting in court.

The big loser in all of this is the taxpayer.

CBC Access to Information Records
CBC is refusing to release information on how much they are spending in court to fight government secrecy.

Article content

Comments

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Join the Conversation

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