Accountability officers of Parliament have a fairly decent record of improving spending practices, government efficiency and integrity. The effectiveness though of an Auditor, Ombudsman, Electoral commissioner or other officer is dependent on the individual’s strength. Each is subject to intense pressure from those affected by examinations and reports. Additionally, government exercises its power of the purse, controlling budgets, facilities and resource allocations. Life can be uncomfortable or comfortable, depending on an officer’s complaisance. In practice, many officials have struggled successfully against interference while others chose job security and comfort over ethical battles.
Some independent officers, like former RCMP Complaints Commissioner Paul Kennedy, move between the two poles. Throughout much of his term, Kennedy cooperated extensively and generally pleased the police hierarchy. However, he grew tired of their refusal to make vital practice changes and, when he became more outspoken, his political overlords withdrew support. The Harper Government replaced Kennedy with a person who, while not qualified for the position, was known to be loyal and accommodating.
Consider how the RCMP and the Justice Department diligently fought Inquiry Commissioner Thomas Braidwood, hoping to keep secret certain details of Robert Dziekanski’s homicide. Braidwood was limited both by the terms of reference that assigned his tasks but also by budgets, schedules, statutes, court and common law precedents. Braidwood, having strong character, did an admirable job of balancing constraints with objectives. Ultimately, he produced an outstanding review of use-of-force and conducted energy weapons. While he could make a clear indication of direct causes and faults in Robert Dziekanski’s death, only the four front line police officers were held to account because Braidwood was prohibited from examining the misinformation and obfuscation of senior officers who managed the effort to limit public relations damage to the police force.
In British Columbia, the Ombudsperson has reviewed many cases of elder abuse. Last year, a report was due on her long investigations but it is mired in bureaucratic quicksand because government authorities have the right to review advance copies and stall further developments for as long as they choose to continue the review. During this time, government has been pressuring the Ombudsperson to diminish her findings and keep disturbing details private.
Similarly, Stephen Harper’s Government has negotiated with the federal Auditor General to soften and delay findings about lavish G8 spending in Tony Clement’s Conservative riding. A leaked copy of Sheila Fraser’s report disclosed that Government misled Parliament about spending from a $50 million G8 Legacy Fund. Clement and two local associates outside government chose 32 projects, including local signage, a gazebo, public washrooms and road and sidewalk upgrades far removed from the G8 summit site. Hundreds of thousands spent on signage alone demonstrate a clear aim was to highlight delivered plums to improve Clement’s chances of re-election.
In pre-election damage control, the Conservatives have been leaning on Auditor General Sheila Fraser to lose the critical report. As a compromise, she removed an accusation that Parliament had been misled and called the lies “a lack of transparency.” Her final report, which should have been issued in early April, has been held back completely because of the election.
This is an example of an accountability officer shaping work to satisfy the sitting government for its political advantage. Perhaps Fraser was concerned that Harper Government retribution, such as that taken against the Defense and Veterans’ Ombudsmen, would be aimed at her organization if she caused embarrassment. Tories meanwhile are expressing outrage, not at Clement’s waste but at leaks of the draft report. (Understand Harper’s unwillingness to allow whistleblower protection?)
Whatever the outcome for the Tories, Auditor General Sheila Fraser’s reputation has been dealt a blow. There is also a twisted irony to Tony Clement’s spending spree in the cottage country riding which is so far removed from his actual home. Clement is on the hard right of the Reform/Conservatives and favors full privatization and strict limits on federal government activities and spending. Part of the theory of this position is that public expenditures are inefficient and likely to be wasteful.
I suppose Mr. Clement has at least proved that when he is in charge of spending the public’s cash, it is certain to be inefficient, with a high degree of waste.
Categories: Harper Government