Set out below is a letter to the editor by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher which was published May 11, 2009 in the Hill Times and addresses an April 13, 2009 column by Jim Travers.
While it is heartening to see Jim Travers' article detailing most of the remaining key undemocratic and accountability problems with Canada's federal government, unfortunately (like many in the mainstream media) he did not highlight the many positive changes that have been won in the past decade, nor other proposed solutions that are closer each day to being implemented ("Democracy slipping in Canada, welcome to court government" - April 13).
In fact, the federal government is much more democratic and accountable now than in the 1980s due to changes pushed for and won by Democracy Watch and supporting citizen groups, mainly in the past decade.
Ethics rules are now enforced by independent agencies with investigative powers instead of Prime Ministers or their toothless lapdogs, and some penalties have been increased; MPs and Senators now have ethics rules; most lobbyists are now required to disclose some details about their activities; most senior policy-makers are now prohibited from lobbying after they leave government for a longer time period; whistleblowers now have some protections from retaliation; donations to parties and most candidates from corporations, unions and other organizations are banned while donations from individuals are limited to relatively low amounts, and; more donations, contracts and expenses are now disclosed, and disclosed more frequently. (To see details, click here)
As well, because of a recent ruling in a court case launched by Democracy Watch, and new guideline issued by the federal Ethics Commissioner, it is now clearly illegal for anyone lobbying to doing anything substantial for, or give anything substantial to, a Cabinet minister or senior government official (or their family members).
True, as Mr. Travers' highlights, and as the 2008 GlobalIntegrity.org report on Canada makes clear, loopholes still undermine all of the areas in the federal government where strengthening changes have been made; the Prime Minister's power to make patronage appointments and to control Cabinet still needs to be reduced (and would have been by now if the Conservatives had kept their 2006 and 2008 election promises to establish an independent Public Appointments Commission); the open government and wrongdoing investigation systems need to be strengthened in many ways (in part because the Conservatives broke their 2006 election promises, and past Liberal governments also broke promises); the RCMP and intelligence agencies need to be made more accountable; party leaders must be banned from overriding nomination races and free votes and party-member-supported policies (and would be if the Conservatives had kept their 2006 election promise), and; MPs must be given more resources to hold those leaders accountable, as well as restricted from switching parties to further their own ambitions. (To see Democracy Watch's December 2008 Report Card on the Conservatives' 29 broken promises, click here -- To see the list of needed changes, click here)
However, proposals, and in some cases bills in Parliament, that aim to make these and other key changes are gaining supporters every year. And Democracy Watch continues to pursue a court challenge of the Prime Minister's election call last fall, as well as other court cases and complaints that, if successful, will force changes to solve many of the problems highlighted in the article.
As Mr. Travers says at the end of the article, "advocacy requires effort." With the ongoing support of many Canadians, Democracy Watch will continue making the effort to advocate the changes needed to make Canada's federal government the most democratic in the world.
And, believe it or not, if the next decade of democratic reform in Canada matches the changes made in the last decade, this goal will be reached.
Duff Conacher, Coordinator