Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Why access to information is important

Here are the kinds of things you find out: "Canada's Afghan tab will be $1.35B more." Apparently an oversight on the part of the Harper government, the military estimates were left on a Treasury Board website at the same time that they were denying that the information could be made public by refusing an access to information request on grounds of national security:
The Treasury Board says that the cost of Canada's military mission in Afghanistan for the next two years will be $1.35 billion higher than projected a year ago by the Defence Department.

Those revised estimates of the incremental costs of the Canadian Forces mission in Afghanistan are posted on the Treasury Board website.

The Defence Department, citing national security provisions, censored an Access to Information request by the federal NDP that asked for those figures three weeks ago.

The Treasury Board says the military mission will cost $822 million in the fiscal year 2009-10 and $943 million in 2010-11. It also estimates that the mission will cost $178 million in fiscal 2011-12, when Canadian troops are expected to pull out of combat roles in Afghanistan. It's the first time figures for that year have been made available. (emphasis added)
So, we find out that once again, the costs are higher than budgeted. We also find out that money has been budgeted for the time frame beyond which the military is supposed to have ceased its operations, albeit at a much lower level than the two preceding years. Two reasons why some unknown government official or team of government officials may have been motivated to deny releasing the information, and improperly so.

Any indication that the military may be planning to remain in a form of engagement is a sensitive political matter that could become subject of debate in a coming election. And bad budgeting, cost overruns will likely figure in that debate as well at a time when the federal deficit is growing exponentially and there are competing demands. The latter point feeds into a theme with these Conservatives, with their consistently poor projections and increasing of our national debt irrespective of the task at hand.

The ongoing cost of this military mission and its wrapping up are major national issues that the public is entitled to scrutinize as this mission is coming to an end. But for what appears to have been an oversight on the Harper government's part, who knows if we'd have ever found out these key pieces of information that help inform our collective judgment.