On January 23, for the first time in 20 years, a Canadian federal election may deliver real reform in government transparency and accountability.
The ruling Liberals, as a result of the sponsorship scandal, were forced to introduce some half-hearted transparency measures in 2005, but there is a strong national consensus that much more needs to be done to make government open and accountable.
The Conservative and New Democratic parties have stepped up to the plate to answer these demands. But the Liberals have made no further pledges during this election, except one: Prime Minister Paul Martin promised to implement all the recommendations of Justice Gomery’s second report, due in February, on how to prevent a similar scandal.
This may sound impressive, except for the fact that we have no idea what those recommendations will be. After being stalled and stonewalled on reform by the Liberals for decades, the last thing Canadians need is yet another leap of faith.
Whose platform is the most promising?
Which party has the most promising policies? So far it’s the Conservatives. Democracy Watch – Canada’s leading watchdog for democratic reform — rates them highest, and so does FIPA.
The Montreal Gazette editorialized that “It’s hard to find fault with Stephen Harper’s 52-point program to clean up politics in Ottawa…. This debate is long overdue and the Conservatives have done us all a service by setting the bar commendably high. Let’s see if the other parties can match them.” (Nov. 8, 2005)
With their platform to strengthen government accountability in 12 key areas, as well as democratic reforms to the Senate and nomination races, the Conservatives are far ahead of the other four parties. Their pledge to pass a Federal Accountability Act as their first act if elected appears to be a difficult promise to break, and the cost of doing so would be heavy.
The centerpiece of the Conservative’s platform would be urgently-needed reforms to the 1983 Access to Information Act (ATI Act), a law that allows citizens to request federal government records for a $5 fee, but which is crippled by excessive exceptions and battered by 20 years of neglect and counter-measures.
FIPA endorses Information Commissioner’s recipe for reform
What FIPA regards as the best model for reform of the ATI Act came not from a politician but from federal Information Commissioner John Reid. Last year he proposed a draft bill that would:
- create a duty to create and preserve records,
- make the system speedier,
- lower fees,
- strengthen powers of oversight,
- extend the Act to cover all crown corporations and government-created foundations,
- create an independent review of claims of Cabinet confidentiality, and
- narrow the Act’s exceptions by making them discretionary, subject to an injury test, and subject to a “public interest override” as in most provincial freedom of information acts.
The Conservatives endorse Reid’s points and add others, such as giving the Commissioner order-making power, and extending ATI coverage to the independent Officers of Parliament.
Such democratic reforms, 20 years overdue, would probably be one of the few bills the Tories and NDP would agree upon – because they are procedural and not ideological, and born of a shared frustration of being long in opposition – and so would likely be passed briskly in a Tory minority government.
NDP accountability platform
The New Democratic Party issued its accountability platform last November: “NDP MP Ed Broadbent laid out a seven point ethics package the NDP will be introducing to deal with unregulated lobbying, political cronyism, access to information and other issues the Martin government continues to ignore.”
In a TV debate, Harper said he has no disagreement with Broadbent’s plan.
The NDP would reform the ATIA to make ministers of the Crown, their exempt staffs and officers of parliament subject to the Act, release third-party contracts and public opinion polling, and open up government records that are more than 30 years old. FIPA agrees these would be good moves.
Of Ottawa’s 246 Crown corporations, agencies and foundations, only 49 are subject to the ATI Act. Under existing law, the numerous foundations tasked with spending $9-billion of tax money cannot be inspected by Canadians, the auditor-general or even elected parliamentarians.
This may be the most urgent ATIA reform: both NDP and Tories have pledged to extend the Act’s coverage to all these entities, while the Liberals do not.
And the rest..
The Bloc Quebecois and Green Party websites briefly cite the need for new accountability laws.
By contrast, the Liberal’s 86-page platform “Securing Canada’s Success” oddly makes no mention of the ATI Act or new transparency plans whatsoever.
The Liberals have manifested their hostility toward public access to information in many ways. For example:
- Failing to deliver the “first-class reforms” they promised to the ATI Act;
- Passing a badly-flawed whistleblower protection bill, which includes a gag order giving Ottawa the power to cloak in secrecy for five years the details of any wrongdoing reported;
- Enabling government to apply “security certificates” which suspend the ATI Act to ward off any ATI request it deems a security risk to the state,
- Passing the Security of Information Act, which binds thousands of bureaucrats to secrecy for life for anything the government regards as in the state’s interest
- Delaying information release to the public by delaying and ‘red-flagging’ ATI requests made by media, critics and Opposition MPs, and routing them to political aides for a ‘spin cycle’.
- Starving the information commissioner’s office for funds, and filing 26 nuisance lawsuits against it.
Yet, to be fair, the Liberals made modest progress on a few points, mainly due to Liberal MP Reg Alcock, president of the Treasury Board:
- The PM ordered the re-establishment of the position of comptroller general, a rebuilding of internal audit, and the appointment of professionally accredited comptrollers to sign off on all new spending initiatives in every government department.
- They added a dozen crown corporations and foundations to the ATI Act’s coverage.
- They overhauled government advertising and public opinion research contracting with a more competitive and transparent process
- They created a new policy of proactive disclosure of travel and hospitality expenses of ministers, parliamentary secretaries, political staff and senior public servants
- Five-year special audits of Crown corporations will be conducted by the auditor general and posted on her website.
When you go to the polls
FIPA urges voters to remember that government accountability and transparency are universal and timeless principles that far transcend political parties and ideologies. Choose accordingly! See you at the polls Jan. 23.