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Minister grilled on open government

Shane Magee/NNSL photo Louis Sebert, the GNWT minister responsible for transparency, listens during a meeting at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre on Wednesday about the creation of an open government policy.

The minister responsible for transparency within the territorial government was grilled Wednesday evening during a meeting to gather input on developing an open government policy.

Louis Sebert appeared uncomfortable at the start of the meeting as he was questioned why GNWT employees aren't getting more information about matters, such as changes to government departments.

“No information goes to the public or employees,” said Lorna Skinner, a GNWT employee who added there's work done behind the scenes and rumours circulate but little gets officially passed on.

“I think the government is already pretty open,” Sebert said, adding several times that the seven members of cabinet are a minority compared to the 11 non-cabinet MLAs, so if regular MLAs are unhappy with the performance of ministers, they can unseat them.

“Well thank God for that,” Skinner said.

She pressed the minister on comments by MLAs that they often find out information about government decisions through the media.

“You have to read the newspaper to find out,” she said, referring to situations, such as the bailout of Northwest Territories Power Corporation during low-water years.

Sebert said “there's a lot of information” shared with regular MLAs.

“So what you’re saying is that they’re lying?” Skinner said.

“No,” Sebert said.
Skinner was the first to open the discussion at a meeting in the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre auditorium Wednesday evening about developing an open government policy. Such a policy would guide how government releases information on items, such as reports and studies, how it engages the public and data it publishes, including making financial reports available in spreadsheets.

Mark Bogan, who has long advocated for fathers' rights in private and public meetings, called Sebert and other MLAs out for ignoring him. Bogan, who works at the Safe Harbour Day Shelter, said he had tried to secure meetings with politicians and some of the shelter's clients.

“I’d say politicians in this jurisdictions are more open than anywhere else,” Sebert said.

“No, that’s not true,” Bogan said, continuing to push the minister.

Sebert rolled his pen continuously in his hand as Bogan spoke, while staring at the floor and at times avoided looking directly at Bogan.

“As I say, I think we’re open to communications,” Sebert said.

Issues around transparency and openness raised by some of the 10 people attending the event included making simplified information available for people without a high reading level, making more contract and bidding information easier to find and how to make more information available about lobbying of the government.

The meeting was one of 15 held in 13 communities to get input for the policy.

Near the end of the meeting, Sebert polled the small crowd of mostly government people whether they would be in favour of disclosing the salaries paid to public servants.

Only Bogan raised his hand.

Such a disclosure, routine in some provinces and city governments elsewhere in Canada, names people and what they earn by working for the government, usually above a threshold of $100,000. The GNWT only discloses salary ranges for position titles without linking those figures to names.

While there was little support in the room for salary transparency, Skinner and others urged an end for bonuses paid to civil servants.

Sebert told the crowd that the open government policy is expected to be put in place later this year.

“If we don't do anything (to make government more open), we're going to hear about it,” Sebert said when asked how the policy would be enforced.