[Democracy Watch Logo] [Op-ed]

The following opinion piece, by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher,
was published in slightly different form in the Calgary Herald, and online by Straightgoods.com, on December 13, 2006, and in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record on December 15, 2006

Conservatives' Half-Measures Not Enough to Clean Up the Federal Government

The federal Conservatives, in particular Cabinet minister John Baird, have made many false and very exaggerated claims about Bill C-2, the so-called Federal Accountability Act, since introducing it last April.

Last Friday Baird claimed that the bill is Prime Minister Stephen Harper's "Christmas gift" of "clean government" to Canadians, and when Bill C-2 became law this week the PM claimed that "accountability in government" is now the law.

 If only these claims were true.  In fact, they directly contradict Conservatives' past claims.  When introducing the Accountability Act proposal in November 2005, Harper pledged that the Conservatives, if elected, would pass an Act with 52 needed measures as his "specific, detailed and credible plan to clean up government" and said Canadians "deserve nothing less" than "accountable government." 

But the Act introduced in April was a lot less than promised, as it contained only 30 of the Conservatives' 52 promised measures, and also weakened key Cabinet ethics rules. Obviously, by the Conservatives' own standards, such an Act could not produce a clean, accountable federal government. 

Not surprisingly, when applauding themselves the Prime Minister and Minister Baird have also failed to mention that opposition parties attempted to add some of the Conservatives' 22 promised measures and key ethics rules to Bill C-2, and to close other loopholes in the system, and that the Conservatives rejected all of their proposals.

Minister Baird's much-repeated retort to critics who have pointed out the Conservatives' broken promises and other gaps in Bill C-2 is that the bill is the "toughest anti-corruption" law ever passed in Canada.  This is very likely true, and the bill does make 30 important changes that limit political donations to democratic levels, make the watchdog for lobbyists and other accountability watchdogs more independent and powerful, require the disclosure of more information (especially about government spending), and ensure that responsibility for spending decisions is clear in more cases. 

However, as a result of the Conservatives' broken promises, and many other long-standing gaps, 57 undemocratic and accountability loopholes remain the federal government's policy-making system.  For example, it will still be legal: 

  • for politicians to lie to the public (because the Conservatives cut the ethics rule requiring the Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers and senior government officials to "act with honesty");
  • for wealthy interests, especially corporations, to lobby in secret (because the Conservatives broke their promise to require senior politicians and officials to disclose their contacts with lobbyists);
  • for government institutions to deny the public access to information they have a clear right to know (because the Conservatives broke their promise to include 40 key open government changes in Bill C-2, and are moving much too slowly on making these changes through another policy-making process);
  • for Cabinet ministers to have a personal financial interest in areas in which they make policy decisions (because the Conservatives broke their promise to close all the loopholes that allow such conflicts of interest), and;
  • for the key ethics watchdogs to make secret rulings, even when they exempt politicians and officials from important ethics rules.
In addition, the Accountability Act does not guarantee any check on cronyism and patronage as Cabinet will still have a choice whether or not to establish the Conservatives' promised Public Appointments Commission (which, if it is set up, will help ensure that nominees for appointments have needed skills and experience).

As well, because the Conservatives broke their promises, the public will not be allowed to file ethics complaints against politicians and will not be protected if they blow the whistle on government wrongdoing, nor will many government employees. 

And overall, the whistleblower protection system will be weak, especially because the Conservatives broke their promises to provide adequate legal services and rewards to whistleblowers.

Key government accountability watchdogs will also still lack needed powers, especially to penalize wrongdoers and to order a clean-up of problem situations (the UN Convention Against Corruption, which Canada has signed but not yet ratified, requires countries to ensure watchdog agencies have such powers).

Many senior government officials will continue to be allowed to act unethically and to cash in on their inside access and influence by becoming lobbyists too soon after they leave office (because the Conservatives broke their promise to ensure all senior officials are covered by ethics rules, and to ban them all from lobbying for five years), and senators, MPs and their staff will still be allowed to become lobbyists right after they leave government. 

Other key loopholes that the Conservatives did not even promise to close in Bill C-2 include that federal government policy-makers will still not be required to consult with the public in a meaningful way before making important decisions.  The passage of many unworkable laws and past boondoggles could have been avoided through such consultations.

Requiring such consultation, along with implementing a method that has been successful in the U.S. for forming broad-based, well-resourced citizen watchdog groups, will do much to ensure the federal government is citizen-driven, citizen-controlled and fully accountable.

MPs will still face no clear rules nor penalties for switching parties in between elections, so some voters will very likely have their fundamental right to choose their representative violated soon after the next federal election.

Loans to parties and candidates must be limited to democratic levels (as donations have), secret donations to nomination race and party leadership candidates must be banned (Bill C-2 bans them only for election candidates), and all donations must be disclosed before voting day (currently, only party leadership candidates are required to disclose before a vote occurs).

Finally, of course, the Senate remains unelected, unaccountable and often unethical, with many senators holding positions on corporate boards and at the same time sitting on committees that review proposed laws that affect the same corporations. 

And the Senate Ethics Officer remains a lapdog under the control of a committee of senators who have the power to stop investigations.  The easiest solution to this mess is to abolish the Senate and increase the number of MPs outside Ontario and Quebec (which will satisfy the desire for elected, effective regional balance in the federal government, and also increase ethical standards as the ethics watchdog for MPs is much more independent than the Senate Ethics Officer).

Given that almost 140 years have passed since the federal government was created, it is more than unfortunate that Bill C-2 leaves open 50 loopholes in the federal government's accountability system, loopholes which are an ongoing recipe for corruption, waste and abuse of the public trust.

Canadians deserve better, and all federal political parties should give Canadians what they deserve by doing all they can to ensure all these loopholes are closed before Canada turns 141.

To see a summary of the key measures in Bill C-2, the so-called Federal Accountability Act, click here

To see a summary of the 85 undemocratic loopholes in the federal government's accountability system that Bill C-2 does nothing to close, click here

To see the details about the ethics complaint Democracy Watch has filed about the Conservatives' breaking their election promises concerning Bill C-2, click here

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