The McNeil government continues to keep the advice it receives on its biggest and most expensive decisions carefully out of public sight.

Yesterday the Minister of Transportation, Infrastructure and Renewal (TIR) refused to release a preliminary cost estimate to replace the crumbling Victoria General (VG) Hospital the government has promised to demolish in 2022. That’s despite the fact the province received that information five and a half months ago, on December 29, 2017, from a management consultant.

Infrastructure Minister Lloyd Hines — who admitted he hasn’t read the 800-page report but said he has been briefed — told journalists it could be another three to six months, or a full year after receiving the information, before it is released to the public.

“The complexity of the QE2 move is extensive and like any important journey, you don’t start out before you have a very good map,” said Hines, “and we are still in the mapping process with Kasian.”

The McNeil government awarded Kasian Architecture of Ontario a $1.9 million contract to come up with a preliminary cost estimate, work schedule, and recommendations for which services delivered today at the VG (such as the Eye Clinic, endoscopy and dialysis) should be located in two new outpatient centres to be built — one at Bayers Lake and another near the Halifax Infirmary. The Kasian report was commissioned in November 2016.

Meanwhile, while flooding continues to be a problem at the VG and patients haven’t been able to drink the water for many years, the McNeil government has proceeded with an expansion at the Dartmouth General Hospital and more recently with a major renovation at the Halifax Infirmary to add beds and operating rooms to replace those when the VG Hospital finally closes. Hines estimates the re-development project has so far cost $132 million.

It’s unclear whether that includes fees paid to consulting firms. Hines confirms his department has received a report last week from Deloitte. The government asked the accounting firm to find the best value for money option to build and operate two new outpatient centres, including a P3 (public-private-partnership) model. Whatever Deloitte has recommended is also a secret which Hines is not yet prepared to share.

The minister referred to the Kasian Report as “a draft.” Hines says staff in both the departments of Health and TIR continue to review the information and ask for clarifications. We’ve heard that before.

“Once staff have completed this review, it will then be submitted to Executive Council (Cabinet) for approval,” TIR spokesperson Marla MacInnis wrote in an email on January 16 of this year to The Halifax Examiner. “Minister Hines is not in a position now to speak about the report, and as he has not yet seen it, it would not be appropriate for staff to speak publicly about it either. At this time we do not have a timeline or a cost estimate to share. The report and a cost-estimate will be publicly available in the next 3-6 months. This is an important project that we are taking the time to do right.”

Doing it right is a good thing. Doing business openly with citizens is also a good thing. A request to view the report was filed under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act last January. It was denied on the grounds the report qualifies as “advice” to the minister and the cabinet which is protected for a period of up to five years.

By that time the finish line should be in sight for replacing the leaky VG. Or it could be another Health Minister’s problem. Former PC Health minister Chris D’Entremont, former NDP Health minister Maureen MacDonald, and former Liberal Health minister Leo Glavine all had their turn.

While it’s heartening to see this work-in-progress, the basis on which the government is making key decisions around services and financing is something the McNeil government has chosen to keep away from taxpayers who will use and pay for it.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. With each information refusal, with each government denial of public info access, the precedent becomes more firmly established. If only the press and columnists are voicing opposition, how long before this is fait accompli on an ever-widening scale? How long before the 2017 voting turnout of 53.4% diminishes further? An illusory dance occurs around voting: politicians become as warm and accessible as they can individually manage while delivering the party message, only to rapidly pull up the drawbridge the minute they’re in office. Citizen apathy and acceptance are rocket fuel for the secretive process described above. We the people, we who benefit or suffer, have primary responsibility for democracy and democratic process; it does not rest solely on the press. Reporting that continually goes into a silent void reinforces government and institutional secrecy. Citizens must stay engaged and speak out more forcefully and often. An excellent place to begin will be the June 19th by-election in Cumberland South. Turnout will be telling.