Government slammed for keeping financial details secret – ‘One of the most disrespectful things I have ever seen’: critic

By Karen Kleiss, Edmonton Journal August 30, 2012

EDMONTON – Transparency and accountability advocates lambasted the Redford government Thursday for severely restricting Albertans’ access to information about the troubled state of the province’s finances.

Finance Minister Doug Horner released a first-quarter fiscal update Thursday that makes no financial projections, omits capital planning and financial assets, and dramatically reduces the number of raw figures available for public scrutiny.

The government also revoked journalists’ access to finance officials, who have for decades been available at technical briefings to explain the most complicated aspects of the province’s financial situation. Reporters rely on these briefings to prepare informed questions for political leaders.

Advocates said keeping financial details hidden from the public robs the electorate of its ability to understand what government is doing and strips Albertans of their democratic rights. Horner said the changes were designed to make the information easier for Albertans to understand.

“We didn’t do a technical briefing, because the reality is if we have to do a technical briefing for (journalists), how do we expect that Albertans are going to understand what I am telling them?

“I want Albertans to understand (that) the first-quarter results are based on actual-to-budget, just the way they would do at home or in their businesses, and that’s the way we are going to report.”

He said the Redford government is not going to rewrite the budget four times a year. “We are not going to make decisions for the rest of the year based on what happened three months ago.”

Premier Alison Redford campaigned on promises of transparency and accountability, but advocates say her government has restricted access to the most basic financial information.

“It’s not up to the government to decide what information Albertans should have. They should present all the information,” Democracy Watch spokesman Tyler Sommers said. “If they want to present something simplified, in layman’s terms, they can do that in addition to releasing full information.”

Sommers said it is “insulting” to suggest Albertans should have access to less financial information so they don’t get confused. “Withholding information is essentially stripping Albertans of their democratic rights,” he said.

Michael Karanicolas, a lawyer with the Centre for Law and Democracy, said the move “is very troubling in terms of the government’s broader attitude toward transparency.

“Budgets — and particularly the raw data — are fundamentally important,” Karanicolas said. “That’s really what’s giving you a clear and unadulterated picture of what’s going on, without government spin.

“Journalists play a critical role, and the fact that they’re not getting access to raw information would be very troubling in the sense that it could rob the electorate of full accountability and understanding of what’s happening in their government.”

Karanicolas said the government’s simplified version “represents the version that a particular political administration wants to be reported, rather than the actual truth,” he said. “So there’s enormous potential for manipulation there.”

Scott Hennig of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation said the financial brochure released by the government Thursday is “not open or transparent.

“The reason why we have these (updates) … is because Albertans need to know the numbers. I find it absolutely stunning that the finance minister would stand there and say he is not doing a technical briefing because … Albertans are all too stupid to understand it.

“This is one of the most disrespectful things I have ever seen this government do.”

With files from Keith Gerein

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