“We work in a vacuum!”
This candid statement, delivered with passion — and frustration — by a policy analyst in one of Ontario’s largest government departments was a harsh condemnation of their ultimate boss, Premier Doug Ford.
Speaking to me at a recent rally, the analyst complained about the difficulty of doing his job without knowing what Ford’s priorities are for his ministry after the Conservatives re-elected in early June.
“Our deputy knows them and tries to explain them to us verbally, but without the mandate letters, it’s impossible to know what Ford really wants to do and when he wants to do it,” added the analyst.
Since becoming prime minister in 2018, Ford has refused to let the public see his mandate letters to his ministers.
Indeed, Ford is so desperate to keep the letters secret that he fights an expensive legal battle to prevent their publication. It was a fight he lost all the way to Ontario’s highest court and he is now appealing to the Supreme Court of Canada.
I always knew that Ford wanted to keep the Ontario public in the dark about its plans. But I hadn’t realized that he also kept 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 veto power. on the decisions of the city council.
The ad apparently came out of nowhere because Ford had never mentioned it during the election campaign this spring or at any time during his first term as prime minister. Was it in the mandate letter given to Steve Clark in June when he was re-sworn in as Minister of Municipal Affairs? Was it in Clark’s 2018 mandate letter when he first became minister? Who knows?
Above all, what other surprises does Ford have in store for Ontario? What else is he hiding?
Mandate letters are among the most important documents a Prime Minister or Prime Minister prepares at the start of their term. These 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 premier of Ontario to issue 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 improve the lives of everyone in Ontario,” she said of her 2014 mandate letters.
Wynne’s 2014 and 2016 mandate letters are still available on the Government of Ontario website.
Some Ford supporters defend his decision to keep the letters private, arguing that government confidentiality is vital to the functioning of any government. They also suggest that the letters are nothing more than rehash campaign promises.
Ford insists that the contents of the letters are not secret at all. “Everyone knows where we are,” he said at a campaign stop in May when the Supreme Court announced it would hear Ontario’s appeal to stop the letters from being published. “It’s going to be very, very clear what we’re doing,” he added.
But John Milloy, a former Liberal cabinet minister for Wynne and Dalton McGuinty and now director of the Center for Public Ethics at Martin Luther University College in Waterloo, says mandate letters are key to helping voters hold the government accountable for the work that ‘he defines for himself.
In a Toronto Star opinion column in April, Milloy also argued that “understanding a government’s priorities and direction can be of great help to those trying to shape public policy internally and outside of government.
I’m sure the policy analyst who talked about working in a vacuum agrees wholeheartedly. The same is true for all Ontarians.