A failed lawsuit against the Conservative Party filed by the CBC during the 2019 election cost taxpayers almost $400,000, according to newly obtained documents. 

Details of the lawsuit were kept behind closed doors for three years, sparking a new conversation about freedom of information procedures in Ottawa.

Conservative leader in the Senate, Don Plett, had to file an access to information request in 2021 to find out how much taxpayers paid in legal fees, after his questions went unanswered by the federal government.  

“The Trudeau government has just given up on its promise of openness and accountability,” Plett told the National Post. “In this specific situation, we had to go around roadblocks that were set by the government to get an answer to my questions three years ago.”

“Somebody needs to be held accountable for this because we have the right to have these answers,” added Plett.

The documents reveal that CBC’s combined legal fees amounted to $359,971.34 with no additional expenses. 

However, the documents were dated before the broadcaster had received expenses from the Conservative party, which are expected to be around $30,000, based on the rates set by the Federal Court.  

The costs given to the party ultimately ended up being $32,665.78, a figure later confirmed by CBC’s director of media relations Leon Mar, bringing the total of the lawsuit to $392,637.12.

CBC launched the lawsuit based on copyright infringement in response to a political attack ad made by the Conservative party which used some of their broadcast footage without authorization. 

The Federal Court dismissed the lawsuit, ruling there was no evidence that the footage was used for partisan purposes “reflected adversely on the broadcaster.”

Plett filed an order paper question in the Senate on May 25, 2021, wherein he asked what the cost of the lawsuit was to Canadian taxpayers, requesting a breakdown of the legal fee costs and the amount awarded to the Conservative party and any other related expenses. 

Plett would file again on Nov. 23, 2021, asking the same questions. 

According to Mar, CBC responded to both order paper questions on June 21 and Dec. 13 of 2021 respectively.

The initial response wasn’t disclosed because it may have died on dissolution of the 43rd Parliament, which ends all unfinished businesses. This includes order paper questions as well as legislation. 

However, the second response is presently still on the order paper because the Senate does not have a deadline for order paper questions the way that the House of Commons does.

Still, Canadian Heritage has not provided any explanation for the parliamentary delay now that the deadline has passed. Furthermore, it hasn’t confirmed whether or not the department is opposed to publicly disclosing the information. 

Plett asked Marc Gold, the government’s representative in the Senate, why the response to his questions took three years but he could not provide Plett with an answer. 

Gold instead suggested the Senate consider changing the procedural rules around order paper questions to be more akin to the House of Commons model, which “imposes upon an obligation for answers in a timely fashion.”

“Colleagues, I do my very best,” said Gold. “But once I transmit (the order paper questions) and follow up (with the relevant departments), as my office and I do diligently, it is out of my control.”

Plett called Gold’s answer “offensive.”

“He’s basically saying: you want transparency? You’re not going to get any. You’re going to have to change a rule that forces us to give you an answer,” Plett told the National Post. He wonders if the Trudeau government is deliberately avoiding his questions on the issue, some of which were filed as early as 2020. 

Last week, Conservative leader Pierre Poilivre promised to make changes to the access to information system that would allow for faster response times and force the government to release more information going forward.