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Spending scandal, and many other recent scandals, show clear need for Real Accountability Act to clean up federal Canadian government

Set out below is a letter-to-the-editor by Democracy Watch Board member Duff Conacher which was published in the Hill Times on February 20, 2012, and on Rabble.ca on February 21, 2012

So an outfit called the Board of Internal Economy, made up of politicians, has just held a behind-closed-doors, unrecorded hearing and will now judge and issue a secret ruling on whether a politician from another political party (former Bloc Québecois party leader Gilles Duceppe) violated vague, contradictory spending rules -- rules created by politicians who also interpret and enforce them.


Oh, and I almost forgot, the ruling cannot be appealed in court.


This must either be a sick-joke excerpt from an Orwellian, Kafkaesque novel, a news story from China or North Korea, or a farce.  In any case, it is the story of a kangaroo court that violates every principle of good governance and justice.


Unfortunately, in our supposed democracy, this is how Canada's House of Commons has always enforced key good government rules.


If Canada was actually a democracy, these rules would have been made clearer and stronger and stricter, and enforcement turned over to an independent tribunal or court, decades ago.


The federal Auditor General position was created in 1878 and has been independent for decades, as has the Chief Electoral Officer.  In the past decade, the new independent positions of federal Integrity Commissioner, Ethics Commissioner and Lobbying Commissioner were created.  The less independent Parliamentary Budget Officer and Senate Ethics Officer were also created during the past decade (and they should be made fully independent).


While the Auditor General could have helped clear up the Gilles Duceppe situation years ago by conducting an audit of all spending by MPs, the law still needs to be changed to give the AG clear enforcement power over spending rules.


Many other long overdue changes to good government laws and enforcement agencies are also needed to clean up federal politics.


The laws the good government watchdogs all enforce must be strengthened by closing loopholes, and by giving them all the power, and requiring them, to penalize violators of good government rules.


Because of loopholes, it is legal: to lie to voters; to keep the details of spending secret; to lobby the federal government in secret; for Cabinet ministers and senior government staff and officials to take part in decisions in which they have a secret financial interest, and to lobby the federal government the day after they leave their job, and; for anyone to give a secret, unlimited donation or gift to a nomination race or party leadership candidate.  These and other huge loopholes in key laws must be closed.


All good government watchdog agencies must be required to rule publicly on every complaint within a reasonable time period.  Currently all of the watchdogs are allowed to issue secret rulings, the Ethics Commissioner is not required to rule on complaints from voters, and the Lobbying Commissioner can dismiss complaints for unjustifiable reasons (and has not ruled on more than 55 complaints, 29 of which date back to 2007).


Good government watchdogs must also be required to issue reports publicly and regularly on the number of complaints received, the nature of each complaint, how and when investigated, and date of each ruling.


Elections Canada is currently keeping secret the nature of, investigation of, and rulings on more than 2,280 complaints it has received since 2004.  This negligent secrecy makes it impossible for anyone to determine whether Elections Canada is enforcing the election law fairly and properly, or at all.


In addition, given that they are enforcing good government rules that every member of the public has an interest in, anyone must be allowed to challenge their rulings in court.


House of Commons committees are reviewing the lobbying law, ethics law and whistleblower protection law through the spring, and serious questions are being considered also about spending rules, and the election law and access to information law.


One can only hope that these reviews will result in recommendations to make the many changes needed to close loopholes, and strengthen enforcement, of these key laws.


The Conservatives introduced and passed a law they called the Federal Accountability Act in 2006 that they claimed cleaned up federal politics (but they misled voters and broke more than half of their promises).  The past five years of scandals have made it clear that another, stronger Real Federal Accountability Act is still needed to actually clean up federal politics.

P.S. See set out below quoted sections from Auditor General Act.


Auditor General Act (R.S., 1985, c. A-17)

5. The Auditor General is the auditor of the accounts of Canada, including those relating to the Consolidated Revenue Fund and as such shall make such examinations and inquiries as he considers necessary to enable him to report as required by this Act.
1976-77, c. 34, s. 5.

Access to information
13. (1) Except as provided by any other Act of Parliament that expressly refers to this subsection, the Auditor General is entitled to free access at all convenient times to information that relates to the fulfilment of his or her responsibilities and he or she is also entitled to require and receive from members of the federal public administration any information, reports and explanations that he or she considers necessary for that purpose.

(4) The Auditor General may examine any person on oath on any matter pertaining to any account subject to audit by him and for the purposes of any such examination the Auditor General may exercise all the powers of a commissioner under Part I of the Inquiries Act.
R.S., 1985, c. A-17, s. 13; 2003, c. 22, s. 90(E).

For more details, go to Democracy Watch's Open Government Campaign page