Website will track commitments in mandate letters for Liberal ministers

By The Canadian Press
November 14, 2017 - 8:00am

OTTAWA — People looking to know how the Liberals have fared on fulfilling their promises — as well as how far they have to go — can now visit a website the federal government has set up to track the tasks Prime Minister Justin Trudeau assigned to his cabinet ministers.

"Canadians should have the best tools possible to hold us accountable," Trudeau said in a statement Tuesday accompanying the release of the website.

"We want Canadians to know exactly what we're doing and help drive progress on issues that matter most to them."

Soon after his Liberals won their majority government in 2015, Trudeau decided, in an unprecedented move for a federal government, to publish the traditionally secret mandate letters written to cabinet ministers.

Now, the Privy Council Office has launched a website tracking the 364 commitments found in those mandate letters, allowing people to check whether a specific pledge has been met, is on track, is going through challenges or, as in the case of electoral reform, has been abandoned.

The mandate letter tracker, which will be updated about every two weeks, also revealed that a promise to give companies that hire younger workers for permanent jobs a one-year break on employment insurance premiums is no longer being pursued.

"Based on research conducted by the Department of Finance, it was determined that this was not the most effective or efficient way of spending public resources to create jobs for young people," the website explained.

Neither is a commitment to remove the GST on new capital investments in all affordable rental housing.

"The government concluded, based on research and evidence, that there were more effective ways of encouraging the construction of affordable rental housing," the website said.

The Privy Council Office, which is the bureaucracy that supports the prime minister, designed the tracker and asked each department to evaluate its progress, with an official acknowledging there was some back-and-forth on how to classify things.

"It was a consensus among several players," said the government official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.

So, the official acknowledged, the process was not devoid of politics, especially since  the priorities in the mandate letters were set by Trudeau and, ultimately, ministers are responsible for meeting the commitments.

The official also said there will likely be those who disagree with individual assessments.

One example might be how the mandate letter tracker deals with the commitment to reform the Access to Information Act, which allows people to pay $5 to request government documents ranging from briefing papers and internal audits to expense reports and internal correspondence.

The mandate letter to Treasury Board President Scott Brison said the legislation, which has been widely criticized as slow and out of date, should be changed so that it "applies appropriately" to the offices of all cabinet ministers, including the prime minister.

The Liberals have been denounced for backpedalling on this part of their promise to reform the act, but the mandate letter tracker did not mention this.

Instead, it grouped all related reforms under a more general commitment to a more open government, which it determined to be right on track.

Speaking generally of the kinds of discussions that took place between departments, the Privy Council and the PMO, in order to arrive at a consensus, the official said: "Some might be a bit more controversial."

Still, the official stressed that transparency was the goal of the exercise and pointed out that when it came to the promise to reform the way Canadians vote in federal elections, the mandate letter tracker goes out of its way to be clear.

The mandate letter provided to Maryam Monsef when she was minister for democratic institutions tasked her with setting up a special parliamentary committee to lead consultations on electoral reform, including the options of ranked ballots and proportional representation, as well as mandatory and online voting.

Technically, Monsef did meet that commitment, but the official said it would have been misleading to not also mention the original goal of electoral reform is no longer on the table.

"I think if this was too rosy, I don't think it's credible," said the official. "Ultimately, it is going to be up to Canadians to decide whether it's credible or not."

— Follow @smithjoanna on Twitter

Joanna Smith, The Canadian Press

Scrap disastrous Phoenix pay system, union head urges Trudeau government