Tuesday, 17 October 2006

Evaluating Harper: accountability and transparency

Part one in my evaluation of the Harper government, looking at campaign priority number one: cleaning up government by passing the Federal Accountability Act. And I'm going to throw in the whole concept of transparency in government as well, because you can't have proper accountability if you don't have transparency.

The Conservatives came to power largely on a wave of revulsion. Enough Liberal supporters were fed up enough to take their vote elsewhere and the scary boogie man campaign strategy just wasn't flying anymore. Even the press was mainly Conservative-friendly, something we have been seeing more of in recent years. (I'm old enough that it still surprises me when I come across a pro-Conservative bias in the media.) I remember thinking after the election that if the Conservatives actually succeeded in passing some ground-breaking legislation in this area, that alone would justify their term in office and make it all worthwhile.

Well, they're passing an Accountability Act, alright, but it sure doesn't look like the one we were promised. Here is the Conservative Party's detailed look at the issue. The Senate has been studying it ad nauseum, the Auditor General is defending it, others have said that the whistleblower provisions are useless at best. John Geddes of Maclean's perhaps does the best job of summing it up:
But the charged atmosphere around accountability is now giving way to a jaded suspicion that some things might never change -- sparking a minor revolt within Tory backbench ranks. Not that there hasn't been some serious action. Harper made good on his vow to reform the way Ottawa operates -- up to a point -- only three months after winning power. The federal accountability act was, as promised, his very first piece of legislation. The omnibus bill, which is now in the hands of a Senate committee, is sprawling, encompassing dozens of measures that will require changes to about 100 existing laws. Some of its steps will reverberate heavily in party and bureaucratic circles: the maximum allowed individual political donation will be cut to $1,000 from $5,000, and union and company donations will be banned outright; meetings between lobbyists and top government officials will be disclosed on a public registry; and former ministers, ministerial aides, and senior mandarins will face a five-year cooling-off period before they can lobby government.

Yet Harper is at risk of forfeiting much of the credit for this and more by not moving to make government less secretive. His apparent fixation on controlling his message -- he demands strict discipline over what his cabinet ministers say, and shows obvious suspicion of the news media -- suggests a Prime Minister ill at ease with a free flow of information. There is more at stake, though, than the matter of his personal style. When the accountability act was tabled last spring, it failed to include most of the Tory campaign promises designed to beef up the access to information rules. Instead, a House committee was assigned to study possible changes to the law in the indefinite future. Critics accuse the Conservatives of trying to postpone and, ultimately, smother their own promised reforms under endless evaluation of the options. "It's absolutely a death-by-committee tactic," said NDP MP Pat Martin. "They chickened out. Their officials and senior bureaucrats got to them."
Of eight promises in the Tory election platform, only their pledge to broaden the access law to cover more Crown corporations and other arms of government was included in the accountability act. Among the commitments left to an uncertain fate: giving the federal information commissioner the power to order documents to be released, obliging public officials to keep records of their actions and decisions, and making the public interest paramount over any possible justification for keeping information secret.

There's a lot of good stuff in that article, but I will resist the temptation to reproduce the whole thing here. Suffice it to say that I too am bitterly disappointed.

I fully expected to be let down by the Conservatives on a lot of points. I have a healthy cynical side. But the idealistic part of me couldn't help hoping they would come through on at least this.

Instead, we've seen John Baird happily adopting the Liberal's strategy to bypass the Access to Information Act, Gordon O'Connor allowing DND bureaucrats and top brass to classify even anodine information that has been published and in the public domain for years, and Foreign Affairs is rivalling them in dangerous foolishness.

I feel sick. My only hope is that a significant number of Tory backbenchers are equally unhappy. It's not a great hope, but it's there. Or perhaps that the Senate would actually fulfill its function by not just delaying this bill, but by sending it back to the House of Commons with a stern message to fix it. Or Michaƫlle Jean could do the same. But I rather doubt they've got the gumption. Where's Ed Schreyer when you need him?

My evaluation on this point is definitely not good. The Tories had a chance to do the entire country an invaluable service and they blew it. Admittedly, they aren't worse than the Liberals here, but hey! We expected more and we're not really getting it.

Technorati tags: , ,

1 comment:

Balbulican said...

If you add to your points Harper's rigid control of communication by his caucus and cabinet; his reluctance to collaborate with an ethics commissioner who, despite that, exonerated him; his boycott of the press gallery; his refusal to scrum; and a dozen other little clues, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that the PM has, in fact, no interest in greater openness or accountability whatsoever. You - we- were conned.


blogger templates | Make Money Online