Opposition MPs call for more transparency about secret orders-in-council

Opposition MPs are calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to be more transparent about secret orders-in-council his government has adopted.

Jagmeet Singh says excessive secrecy undermines public faith in government institutions

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says the government's fondness for secret orders-in-council threatens public trust in government institutions. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Opposition MPs are calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to be more transparent about secret orders-in-council his government has adopted.

New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh said a lack of transparency erodes trust in government institutions. He said the national security exemption for keeping such orders-in-council secret should be used judiciously.

"What we're seeing now is an increasing reliance on this ... approach, which is problematic," Singh told reporters. "It's something we disagree with. We want to see more transparency. We want to see people able to trust their institutions because they see the decisions being made in a transparent manner."

Singh's comments came after CBC News revealed that the Trudeau government has adopted 72 secret orders-in-council (OICs) since it came to power. While the Liberals criticized the Conservatives in 2015 for the number of secret OICs they had adopted over nine years in government, Trudeau's government has adopted more than twice as many over its six years in office.

The only indication that a secret OIC even exists is a missing number in the Privy Council's order-in-council database. Secret OICs can be used for anything from stopping a foreign company from buying a Canadian business to outlining who is authorized to give the order to shoot down a commercial airliner hijacked by terrorists.

More than half of the secret orders-in-council adopted by the Trudeau government have come since April 2020 — a month after the COVID-19 pandemic began. Eleven have been adopted so far this year.

While some of the decisions are related to national security reviews of foreign investment transactions, others are not.

Privy Council officials said that two orders-in-council adopted earlier this year could not be released because they fell under a section of the access to information law that restricts records related to things like national defence, international affairs or the "detection, prevention or suppression of subversive or hostile activities."

They also refused repeatedly to say why other OICs were being kept secret.

Former cabinet minister Jim Carr said it's not always possible to make orders-in-council public. (Jeff McIntosh / Canadian Press)

Former Liberal cabinet minister Jim Carr said that while cabinet decisions should be transparent, that's not always possible.

"I believe to the extent possible, the work we do should be transparent," Carr told reporters on his way into question period on Wednesday. "There are occasions when that's not possible, when there are national security issues or other matters of cabinet confidence."

Asked if he was surprised that the Trudeau government had adopted more secret orders-in-council than the Harper government, Carr said, "At my age, my stage, there are very few surprises."

Trudeau broke his promise to be transparent: Gladu

Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu called on the government to reveal details of the secret OICs.

"I think Canadians need to know what these things are," Gladu told reporters on her way into question period. "These are orders-in-council that will impact various aspects of Canadians' lives and so they need to be transparent, as they said they would."

Gladu said Trudeau hasn't delivered on his promise of more transparency.

"I think this has been the least transparent government we have had," she said. "Justin Trudeau said at the beginning that he was going to be open and transparent. That has never happened and this is just another example of that."

Alain Therrien, Bloc Québécois critic for democratic institutions, described the news that the Trudeau government had adopted 72 secret orders-in-council as "gigantic."

"We find it very worrying," he said. "It is a total lack of transparency. Seeing things like that won't help people regain confidence in politics."

Bloc Québécois MP Alain Therrien said he wonders why the number of secret orders-in-council has increased so much under the Trudeau government. (Radio-Canada)

Therrien questioned the government's definition of national security, adding it is difficult to know the content of secret orders-in-council because the government is likely to cite national security.

Therrien said he would like to know why the numbers have increased so much under the Trudeau government.

"Is it normal to see such a strong increase in the number of secret orders-in-council?" he asked.

"The strategy has not yet been developed but it is certain that we will think about it and find the answers to our questions."


Elizabeth Thompson

Senior reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.