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Albertans have a right to ask questions about the integrity and preservation of their government's records

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There's a whiff of panic in the air nowadays in some of the most politicized corners of the Alberta government.

Of course, every government that has been in power for more than a few years, regardless of its ideology or party name, has secrets it would rather not reveal.

But with the sense Alberta's government very well could change hands after the next general election, Progressive Conservative politicians and some of the senior bureaucrats who are an essential part of the nearly 44-year-old PC Dynasty have to be asking themselves what they are going to do about it.

This is an important question for we citizens who want to know what happened within our government during their long watch, not to mention who care about our history.

When it comes to their commitment to transparency, not all the signs are promising.

In a 2012 study of Canadian access-to-information laws by the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy, Alberta was tied for last place with the Alberta-dominated federal Conservative government and the government of New Brunswick. That is, according to the CLD, we and the others have the weakest legal frameworks in Confederation for protecting the right of citizens to information about their government.

That rating put Alberta 55th in the world, by the way, behind Colombia and Mongolia and barely ahead of Angola and Thailand.

Way back in 2003, the Parkland Institute attempted to compare Alberta's highway maintenance system, which had been privatized a few years before by the PC Government of premier Ralph Klein, with the government-run program that preceded it.

This proved to be impossible. Constant reorganization of the departments responsible for the program allowed the government to claim records could not be found. Confidentiality agreements with private contractors provided another convenient excuse for withholding comparative information. In the end, there was no choice but to take on faith the claims of Ralph Klein and Steve West, the minister the premier favoured to lead his attacks on public services. West, a veterinarian from Vermilion, later also served as Klein's chief of staff for a spell.

A decade later, the Parkland Institute reported last year, there had been no improvement in the ability of citizens to access information about Government of Alberta operations.

Indeed, with the introduction of Finance Minister Doug Horner's unorthodox, confusing and much criticized budget reporting techniques, understanding what this government is up to has grown even more difficult.

Until very recently, however, the Progressive Conservative Party and the senior reaches of the civil service have at least mostly felt comfortable with the notion they would remain in power forever.

Since then, though, Albertans have been buffeted by spectacular revelations about lavish spending by senior health care officials, donations to the PC Party by a raft of publicly financed institutions, routine use of the provincial air fleet by the premier's office and a secret project to build the premier a luxurious residence high atop a government building in downtown Edmonton. The latter, we were told, had been cancelled at a small cost. Then we learned it had never been cancelled.

Surely, under these circumstances, Albertans are entitled to wonder what else they don't know.

They're also entitled to worry they will never know many important facts, if senior elected and unelected officials of this government -- never all that committed to transparency -- take measures to ensure their secrets remain hidden forever.

As things stand, Albertans know far less than they ought to know about:

- Electricity deregulation

- Liquor sales privatization

- School and highway P3s

- Flood cleanup and mitigation costs in Southern Alberta

- Payouts for cashiered political aides

- The operation of the most politicized provincial departments, such as Finance, Justice, Municipal Affairs and Education

As the British historian Antony Beevor observed: "Few things reveal more about political leaders and their systems than the manner of their downfall."

So it is not unreasonable to ask the three candidates for the leadership of the PC party, in these circumstances, if they will commit to ensuring the integrity and preservation of government records keeping during a transfer of government.

Albertans shouldn't have to worry about a fleet of shredder trucks descending on the Legislature between now and election day!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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