[Democracy Watch Logo] [Op-ed]

A shorter version of the following op-ed, by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher, was submitted to the Globe and Mail and the Ottawa Citizen, and even shorter, letter-length versions of the op-ed were also submitted to the two newspapers, but neither published either the op-ed or the letter. 
In other words, both newspapers refused to correct several factual errors, and unsubstantiated claims, in articles and columns published by them.
The op-ed was published in The Suburban (Montreal's largest circulation English newspaper) on December 12, 2007.

Democracy Watch's Report Card on the Loophole-Filled "Federal Accountability Act"

Elite Ottawa insiders make misleading claims that Federal Accountability Act is too strong, when in fact it is much too weak
Karlheinz Schreiber and Brian Mulroney could still lobby in secret, and Schreiber could still make secret payments to federal politicians and government officials

After using vague, misleading claims throughout 2006 in an unsuccessful attempt to stop passage of the so-called “Federal Accountability Act” (FAA), some of Canada’s old-guard politicians and lobbyists (and one journalist) are now using more vague, misleading claims to attack the FAA.

All Canadians should hope not only that their attacks have as little effect as last year, but also that politicians will complete, as soon as possible, the clean-up of the federal government that the FAA barely began because the Conservatives only included 30 of 52 promised measures in the FAA (and only 24 of the 30 are in force), and failed to address about 90 other loopholes in the federal government’s accountability system. (To see details about these broken FAA promises, click here -- To see details about the loopholes, click here)

According to the Ottawa insiders, the FAA was a "perverse" reaction to the results of the Gomery inquiry into the Adscam sponsorship scandal (as Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail called the FAA in his November 16, 2007 column). 

In fact, as set out clearly in the Conservatives' election platform, the FAA was mainly (Mr. Simpson neglected to mention) a reaction to all of the loopholes in the federal government's accountability system that had been revealed since 1993, loopholes that allow dishonesty in politics; secret unlimited donations to nomination race, election and party leadership candidates; secret trust funds by MPs, riding associations and political parties; secret lobbying; secret polling; excessive secrecy overall; party-switching by MPs; that allow federal politicians (including Cabinet ministers, their staff and senior government officials) to be involved in policy-making processes in which they have a direct financial interest, and to become lobbyists soon after they leave office.

These critics also ignore the fact that the FAA completely closes only two of the many loopholes listed above (those that allow secret unlimited donations to election candidates, and secret trust funds by MPs), and only partially closes one other loophole (it extends the ban on Cabinet ministers and some political staff becoming lobbyists to five years).

To give just one example to show how loophole-filled the system still is, despite the measures in the FAA, Karlheinz Schreiber and Brian Mulroney would still not be required to be publicly listed as in-house corporate lobbyists (as long as they lobbied less than 36 days every 6 months), and Schreiber could still give $300,000 in secret to some federal candidates, and to all federal politicians, political staff and public servants right after they leave office, either as a donation or as payment for lobbying services (and could give the same amount in secret to trust funds maintained by every federal political party and their riding associations). 

One would think that any Canadian, especially someone in the media, would include these facts when writing about or commenting on the FAA, especially given the clear, overwheliming evidence throughout Canadian history that government dishonesty and secrecy, and weak government ethics rules, are a recipe for corruption, incompetence, waste and failure to solve societal problems. 

But for former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien it is much more important to claim, as he did in an article published November 26, 2007 in the Ottawa Citizen (without providing any evidence), that the extrended ban on becoming a lobbyist is “keeping a lot of good people” out of the federal government and amounts to “a presumption that people are corrupt”. 

Really?  Why would any good person care about an extension by a few years of an already existing rule that only bans them from being paid to try to influence only some of their former colleagues?  Yes, that’s right, that is the only activity they can’t do for five years -- they are free to do every other job in Canada (and even free to be paid to provide strategic advice on how to approach the federal government).

Chrétien and Simpson and a group of 50 so-called “prominent” Canadians recently surveyed by the Public Policy Forum (none of whom were representatives of public sector unions or citizen advocacy groups), also make the evidence-challenged claims that the FAA requires more paperwork through too many new rules and regulations for all public servants, and is therefore making federal government operations less efficient and effective.  Despite not providing any evidence to back their claims, the Public Policy Forum's survey report was reported without question in a hyped-up, front-page article in the October 5, 2007 Ottawa Citizen

In fact, the FAA only requires only two new things of only a few of the federal government's more than 400,000 public servants, namely 50 government institutions that were not covered by the federal Access to Information Act are now covered by the law (are these Ottawa insiders against transparency in government?) and if a deputy minister believes that a minister's proposed action or decision is a violation of a law, regulation, code, policy or guideline, the minister must make the proposal in writing and inform the Auditor General or Comptroller General of the disagreement (are they against establishing clearly who is responsible for government actions and decisions?).

According to these critics, the FAA has also created many new "bureaucracies" but, in fact, the only completely new office is the Procurement Ombudsman (are they against having an officer to which bidders on government contracts can complain (without needing a lawyer) about unfair contracting processes?).  True, there is also the new position of Parliamentary Budget Officer, but that person will be one of the existing Library of Parliament staff (are they against having an independent office to help ensure Finance Ministers truthfully state the government's surplus-debt position?).

Mr. Simpson and some of those interviewed by the Public Policy Forum are also of the opinion that the FAA contains excessive requirements to report on lobbying.  As these people should know, the requirements are not finalized or in force yet, and at best will require only some lobbyists to disclose their communications only with Cabinet ministers, their policy staff, and senior government officials (do they believe lobbyists should be allowed to have secret meetings and conversations with the most powerful people in the federal government?)

Everything else in the FAA either clarifies or strengthens existing rules, or existing enforcement agencies.  For example, the Public Sector Integrity Officer is now a more independent Commissioner (are the critics against having an independent office that takes complaints from whistleblowers about government wrongdoing and protects them from retaliation?) and, if the Conservatives keep their promise, the current Cabinet-minister-controlled Registrar of Lobbyists will be replaced by a more independent Commissioner of Lobbying (do these Ottawa insiders believe the enforcer of lobbying rules should be controlled by a politician who is lobbied?).

Overall, I guess it is not at all surprising that these elite Ottawa insiders would complain about the FAA (even though it weakens ethics standards and only slightly increases accountability in the federal government) as they are very used to doing what they please without effective ethics, openness, public consultation or waste-prevention requirements.

Mr. Simpson also claimed in his November 16, 2007 Globe and Mail column that the annual donation limit for individuals to each federal political party is $1,000 -- in fact it is $2,200 ($1,100 to the party, and another $1,100 combined total to the parties' riding associations).  And, during an election campaign, another $1,100 combined total can be donated to each parties' candidates.

While it is true that donations to the campaigns of candidates for the leadership of federal political parties are now limited to individuals and to $1,100, Mr. Simpson's claim that this will discourage "serious people" from being candidates is highly questionable.

Let's assume, based on the recent leadership races of the three national federal parties, that to have a good chance at winning a candidate would need to raise about $1.5 million -- either about 1,500 people donating $1,100 each, or 2,000 people donating $750 each, or 3,000 people donating $500 each.  Remember, all donors receive a tax deduction equal to about half their donation.

Does Mr. Simpson actually believe that this is too high a hurdle for a "serious" candidate to overcome?  Shouldn't someone who has a good chance of becoming prime minister or opposition leader have the solid, demonstrated support of at least 1,500 to 3,000 Canadians?

And if they win, don't their supporters, and all Canadians, have a right to a government accountability system that effectively requires them (and all federal politicians, political staff, Cabinet appointees and public servants) to act honestly, ethically, openly, representatively, and to prevent waste?

In other words, in complete contrast to Mr. Simpson's, Mr. Chrétien’s, and the other critics’ views, what will actually be perverse is if federal politicians increase donation limits, neglect to implement the 22 promised measures the Conservatives left out of the so-called "Federal Accountability Act," continue to leave open the 60 or so other well-known loopholes, and fail to close any other loopholes revealed by the inquiry into the Mulroney-Schreiber affair.

For more details, go to Democracy Watch's Clean Up the System page

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