[Democracy Watch Logo] [Op-ed]

All federal political parties have failed to ensure fully independent and effective Parliamentary Budget Officer -- second Accountability Act needed to close loopholes, strengthen independence and powers of all enforcement agencies

Set out below is a letter to the editor by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher which was published in slightly different, edited form in the August 3, 2009 issue of the Hill Times

Senator Sharon Carstairs claims that Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) Kevin Page does not have the right to make his reports public and that he "should respect the law and the job description under which he was hired" (Article and letter - Hill Times, July 20).

And Carleton University Professor Sharon Sutherland is quoted as claiming that the PBO's public profile "delegitimizes representative democracy" and that he either must be put under the House of Commons (presumably as an Officer of Parliament) or run as a candidate in the next election (Liberals broke embargo on PBO’s five-year budget forecast - Hill Times, July 13).

In fact, nothing in the Parliament of Canada Act clearly sets out how the PBO's reports are to be made public.  Very unfortunately, the joint House-Senate Committee recently decided (as it is empowered to do) to interpret the vague measures in the Act as requiring the PBO to submit his reports to Parliament and parliamentarians to allow them to release them at their discretion.

As a result, now (and if he is made an Officer of Parliament in the future, as the NDP and Bloc seem to want) the PBO cannot release reports any time Parliament is closed (five months each year and during elections), and therefore the public will likely be denied key, timely information needed to decide who to vote for, or what to invest in as an individual or business.

As well, the PBO's reports will now come out with political spin added by whichever politician is releasing the report, which will fundamentally undermine the "truth-in-budgeting" objective of the PBO.

In addition, what Ms. Sutherland and others who share her views don't seem to understand is that the PBO and the other federal government watchdogs that have been created in the past few years (Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, Commissioner of Lobbying, Director of Public Prosecutions, Public Sector Integrity Commissioner and Procurement Ombudsman), and the others that already existed (Auditor General, Chief Electoral Officer, Commissioner of Elections, Information Commissioner and Privacy Commissioner) actually enhance representative democracy by helping ensure fundamental good government laws are followed.

To be consistent, Ms. Sutherland and her colleagues would also have to propose that all judges be put under the control of politicians or become politicians -- a ridiculous change that would destroy law enforcement, especially enforcement of the laws that apply to politicians (which is essential to have a democracy of any kind).

Beyond the many loopholes in the laws they enforce, the actual problem with the PBO and other government watchdogs is that they are essentially lapdogs because in almost all cases they can't release their reports until politicians want them released, and they have no power to require anyone to comply with the law, nor to penalize violators.

As a result, many good government rules continue to be violated without penalty by many people involved in federal politics, and the release of reports of violations are sometimes delayed in attempts to reduce political damage.

For example, even though the PBO has a right under the Parliament of Canada Act to information he needs to do his reports (with some exceptions), a few departments and agencies simply refused to give him required information when he was preparing his report last year on the actual cost of the federal government's activities in Afghanistan.  Because of the PBO's lack of powers, none of the heads of these government institutions could be required to give him the information, nor penalized for violating the Act.

And the Auditor General's report on the Liberals' Adscam sponsorship scandal was delayed by then-Prime Minister Chrétien's proroguing of Parliament in November 2003.

The situation is so perverse that anyone parking illegally in Canada faces a greater likelihood of being caught and penalized than anyone breaking a key federal good government rule (and the same is true in all provincial, territorial and municipal governments).

Anyone who wants Canada to have an actually honest, ethical, open, representative and waste-preventing government should be advocating stronger powers for these key good government agencies, not trying to reduce their powers and put them under the control of politicians.

Given that the federal government is 142 years old, and that a large majority of Canadians want good government (finally), why is no federal political party pushing as one of its top priorities the key changes to ensure everyone in federal politics can and will be held accountable for violating good government rules?

Canadians deserve better.

Duff Conacher, Coordinator
Democracy Watch

To see the list of 16 very questionable situations in the federal government from the past 15 years that have not been fully and fairly investigated, mainly because of the lack of independence and powers of so-called government "watchdog" agencies, click here

For more details, go to Democracy Watch's Voter Rights Campaign page or Clean Up the System page