Treasury Board President Tony Clement has invoked cabinet secrecy rules to avoid answering questions on hundreds of millions in federal funding earmarked to help Newfoundland and Labrador adjust to the Canada-European Union free trade deal.

In what may be a first in government opacity, according to the written response tabled in the House Monday, even that description of the fund may constitute confidential information.

In April, New Democrat MP Ryan Cleary submitted a strikingly simple series of written queries about $280 million in federal funding allocated to Newfoundland and Labrador as part of the proposed Canada-EU trade agreement-in-principle.

Cleary wanted to know why the money had been set aside for the province, its stated purpose and "any stipulations" on how it is to be spent.

Yesterday, he got an answer — or, at least, a reply — from Clement, who refused to address any of Cleary's questions "on the grounds that it is a confidence of cabinet."

Details published in press release

Apparently, no one bothered to tell former Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale the payment was supposed to be a secret.

Last fall, she lauded Ottawa for contributing precisely that amount — $280 million — to a new $400-million federal-provincial fund that would "play a key role in assuring the success of provincial harvesters and processors as they deliver products to tables in the European Union, and throughout the world."

The press release says the money "will be used to invest in research and development, new marketing initiatives, fisheries research, and enhancements to provincial fisheries infrastructure."

It also predicts that "more than 19,000 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians" and "approximately 90 processing facilities throughout the province" will ultimately benefit from the fund.

Now, it's very likely Cleary was hoping his parliamentary query would oblige the federal government to provide a little more detail on the parameters of the proposed federal-provincial deal.

At the very least, however, one would expect Clement's office to go through the trouble of painstakingly cut-and-pasting the relevant portions from the above-referenced press release, and submitting that as its official reply.

Documents redacted

Dunderdale herself came under fire from the provincial Liberal opposition last fall after she initially failed to keep her pledge to release all related correspondence with Ottawa on the agreement, known by the acronym CETA, and the $400 million deal.

The promised documents were eventually tabled with redactions in the House of Assembly in December, apparently with nary a concern that doing so could breach cabinet confidence at the provincial level.

For the moment, the entire assistance package is on hold until the trade agreement is finalized. The agreement-in-principle is still undergoing last-minute edits as negotiators have trouble settling on the final details.

Cleary can only cross his fingers that once it has been signed, sealed and delivered, the cloak of federal cabinet secrecy may finally be lifted — at least enough for Clement to pass along the text the provincial press release.

In a statement issued late Tuesday, Clearly accused the government of keeping the details of the payment under a "cone of silence."

"The response to my query regarding any stipulations on the province’s compensation shows that the Conservatives feel no obligation to inform Newfoundlanders and Labradorians about a deal that could greatly impact one of our most important industries,” he said.

Cleary noted that the "secrecy obsessed Conservatives" had even refused to release information made public by the province.

“What are they trying to hide?”

UPDATE - In a tweeted reply, Clement maintained that cabinet secrecy was "appropriate" as the question "related to funding that was going before Treasury Board."

"Of course the amount of money is public and other details rightly will be found in tabled parliamentary documents in future," he concluded.