Put it in writing

Pam
Pam Frampton
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"Supporting documentation is important for transparency and accountability."

- Then interim auditor general John Wiersema, quoted in The National Post, Oct. 6, 2011

Who knew an editorial about infrastructure could put such a bee in the premier's bonnet?

Yet Kathy Dunderdale was buzzing with indignation last week and tore a strip off The Telegram for an opinion piece based on the acting auditor general's report.

The acting AG was looking for information on how infrastructure spending was decided upon. His report said he was interested in the processes in place within departments to "identify, analyze and manage infrastructure needs."

We're talking pavement, bridges, hospitals, ferries, schools and the like.

The acting AG was not taking issue with where the money was spent.

What acting AG Wayne Loveys did have a problem with was that when he went looking for a copy of the government's infrastructure strategy, he found out there wasn't one.

Then he was denied access to the information and processes presumably used to make decisions about funding for infrastructure.

Now, you can forgive him for expecting the government to actually have an infrastructure strategy, because it keeps referring to one.

A news release from Aug. 31, 2011, announcing money for high-profile projects like the redevelopment of Colonial Building, says the projects are being funded, "as part of an ongoing multi-year infrastructure strategy currently valued at more than $5 billion."

A Transportation and Works news release from the same month announcing road work, refers to the government's "aggressive infrastructure investment strategy."

The same department's 2011-2014 Strategic Plan refers to "Government's multi-year infrastructure strategy."

The premier's web page - newenergynl.ca/achievements - used during the election to list the government's milestones, says the government has "Moved forward with an aggressive, unprecedented, multi-billion-dollar, multi-year infrastructure strategy for work on roads and highways, wharves and bridges, ferries and terminals, schools and hospitals, long-term care centres, public housing and municipal works."

Clearly, given all these references and others, you would expect the government to have a multi-year plan for capital spending - an unprecedented one, at that.

So, why isn't there one?

Ah, there's the rub.

What Loveys found out is that an Infrastructure Working Group was struck and a draft report was prepared in November 2004. The trouble is, it was never finalized.

As Loveys notes, "However, the working group did highlight the benefit of developing an overall integrated long-term strategy for capital investment."

It's time to move that project onto the front burner.

Because, as The Telegram's much-maligned editorial pointed out, if you can't explain how decisions are made about how money is spent, people are left to wonder.

Right now, we can only presume the money was spent where it was needed most.

But as the editorial said, the absence of fact can lead to speculation.

Dunderdale, meanwhile, insists the annual budget outlines the government's infrastructure strategy, but that's somewhat disingenuous.

What the acting AG wants to know is how items made it into the budget.

And you can't blame folks for wanting some rationale for how their money is spent.

Just look at the federal government.

It was only last year that the interim AG in Ottawa was blasting Stephen Harper's administration for its hand-over-fist spending - ostensibly on the G8 and G20 summits, but in reality on all kinds of frivolous projects meant to curry favour and votes.

In an Oct. 6, 2011 story by Jason Fekete in The National Post, then interim auditor general John Wiersema said the government did not follow protocol and rushed through $50 million in spending.

As Fekete reported: "The $50-million was spent in the lead-up to the summit on a variety of projects ranging from the construction of a gazebo, public washrooms and sidewalk upgrades many kilometres from the G8 event site in Huntsville, (Ontario)."

In this province, the government has told the acting AG the information he is seeking about how infrastructure projects were selected is off-limits because those details could have been discussed in cabinet and are therefore top secret.

Contrast that policy to how federal infrastructure spending is supposed to occur.

"The normal process would be that ministers would not be involved in that level of detail of project selection," Wiersema told The National Post.

"That would be the work of the public service."

That's not such a bad strategy.

So, to recap: the government says it has a multi-year infrastructure plan.

May we see it? Uh ... actually, there is no plan.

Can you tell us how you decided and prioritized where infrastructure money would be spent?

Sorry, that's a secret.

Dunderdale's government is going to have to drop its "we're the most accountable and transparent government - ever!" mantra until that claim is actually true.

Meanwhile, perhaps it's time to get that infrastructure plan in writing, for all to see.

Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram's associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at pframpton@thetelegram.com. Twitter: pam_frampton

Organizations: Acting , National Post, Infrastructure Working Group Interim

Geographic location: Ottawa, Huntsville, Ontario

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  • Bill
    February 04, 2012 - 10:23

    My god you only have to go around the province to see where the money was spent. Do we expect the govt to check with the public everytime something has to be replaced. That's why we elect a govt, to make decisions. Get real!

    • W McLean
      February 04, 2012 - 21:23

      Bill - hello from Twitter! - the question isn't so much where the money was spent, although it would certainly be interesting to see whether government or cabinet districts were favoured. The question is why and how the money was spent. That's what oversight is for. What are your PC friends trying to hide?