Ontario’s freedom of information law is based on the principle that every individual has a right to access government information. This right exists to ensure the public has the information it needs to participate meaningfully in the democratic process, and that politicians and bureaucrats remain accountable to the public.
There are, understandably, some necessary exceptions to the law. Those exceptions, written into the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act as “exemptions,” are designed to strike a balance between Ontarians’ fundamental right to know and the privacy and safety of individuals. They are also meant to be limited and specific. Labour relations, solicitor-client, and certain law enforcement records are examples of information that may be exempt from disclosure. The law also allows (rightly so) for the Premier and his cabinet to engage in free discussion of sensitive issues, in private. As such, cabinet documents cannot be disclosed if they reveal the substance of deliberations of the Executive Council or its committees.
Order PO-3973, which I issued on July 15, dealt with a request for the mandate letters sent by Premier Ford to all Ontario government ministers. Cabinet Office denied access to the letters based on the premise that, as cabinet documents, they are automatically exempt from disclosure. Mandate letters have become common across Canada as a means to provide direction to ministers of incoming governments. They are frequently made public.
After reviewing the mandate letters, I determined that they do not reveal government deliberations, the substance of any meetings, discussions, or any other options considered by the Premier’s Office. That is why I found that the exemption did not apply, and in Order PO-3973, I directed Cabinet Office to disclose the letters by August 16.
The purpose of our freedom of information law is to support the public’s ‘right to know.’ Unless government records are exempt, they should be disclosed to the public. In this case, the mandate letters do not qualify for exemption as cabinet documents. I ordered their release because Ontarians have a right to know what the government’s policy priorities are.
On August 14, my office received notice that the government intends to challenge my decision in court and prevent the release of the letters. Because it is now subject to a judicial review, I will not comment further on Order PO-3973, except to say that I stand by my decision, and hope to see a swift resolution.