The strange case of the NDP vs. the AG

At first blush, Auditor General Jacques Lapointe’s refusal to issue an audit opinion on the province’s two largest business loan funds looks like another in the lengthening string of Dexter Government screw-ups. This is the NDP, for heaven’s sake, perennial champions of openness and accountability, withholding 281 documents and redacting a further 32 on grounds of cabinet confidentiality and solicitor-client privilege, thereby thwarting independent scrutiny of the corporate welfare trough they once scorned.

Solicitor-client privilege protects communications between a lawyer and a client from being disclosed without the permission of the client. It binds the lawyer, not the client. In the case at point, government is the client; it has an unfettered right to waive confidentiality. Contrarian asked Finance Minister Graham Steele why it didn’t simply do so.

steele2-250Steele replied by email: “The key issue is how to allow the auditor general to have access to documents, without thereby opening to disclosure documents which are legitimately confidential…

“This issue, which is known as ‘limited waiver,’ is enshrined in statute in other provinces like Ontario,” Steele wrote. “We have no such provision in our Auditor General Act. Our view is that it is necessary to have a legislative framework in place before privileged documents are handed over to the Auditor General. The auditor general apparently believes the existing legislative framework is sufficient. With respect, we disagree, and we are backed up by the court case and the practice in other provinces.”

Steele cited a December, 2000, Nova Scotia Supreme Court decision, Nova Scotia v. Royal & Sun Alliance, in which the province sued two insurance companies seeking to recover damages paid to abuse victims in residential schools. While carrying out a review of the compensation program, the auditor general of the day was given access to various documents over which the province later tried to claim cabinet or solicitor-client privilege. Partly on grounds of that prior disclosure to the AG, the chambers judge agreed to give the companies access to some but not all of the documents.

JacquesLaPointe-250In a statement to the media Wednesday, Steele said the province wants “to put the same framework [as Ontario], or a similar one, into our legislation, and then the documents will be turned over to the auditor general.” quotes Lapointe as complaining he suggested doing exactly that, but was stonewalled by government lawyers.

“[W]ith the benefit of hindsight,” Steele wrote to Contrarian, “It is obvious that we should have identified the issue of limited waiver as an issue that needed to be expedited, and we should have dealt with it in advance of the rest of the revisions.” Yup.

Steele made two other points in his email:

Something that was missed by the reporters was that the audit was supposed to cover March 2008 to September 2009 – in other words, 15 months of the last government, and only 3 months of ours. The idea that we are “covering up,” when most of the audit would have covered the previous government, is … well, far-fetched.

Our Cabinet has never made a decision to deny access. The matter never came before us because in the normal course we would have dealt with the matter when a legislative proposal was ready. In denying access, the Clerk of the Executive Council was simply following through on long-standing and well-established practice.

The second point is at best a distinction without a difference, at worst specious. Through most of the new government’s tenure, Robert Fowler was Clerk of the Executive Council. I worked for Fowler for two years, when he was CEO of the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency and I was its director of communications. We remain friends, and while we didn’t always agree, I can attest that Fowler was punctilious in his observance of elected ministers’ prerogatives. He may well have advised government to withhold the documents, but it is inconceivable he would have directed departments to do so without clearing the matter with the premier or deputy premier. I’m confident the same is true of his successor, Greg Keefe.

The whole embarrassing saga further erodes the new government’s political capital and moral authority. It suggests that, as with many new governments, especially those with no experience governing, senior civil servants are running the show. If this is indeed a problem, it is partly a result of a too-small cabinet, spread too thin.

One final note: Lapointe comes off as a bit of a show-boat in this exchange. He appears to enjoy his increasingly frequent sashays through the media spotlight. A civil servant who has experienced one of his audits complains that his MO is abrasive rather than constructive. That’s consistent with the impression he left here.