[Democracy Watch Logo][Op-ed]

Praise and criticism of proposed "Federal Accountability Act" are both exaggerated

The following opinion piece, by Duff Conacher, Coordinator of Democracy Watch, was published in the Ottawa Sun on April 20, 2006, the Calgary Herald on April 21, 2006, and the Hill Times on April 24, 2006).

Media outlets and commentators on the so-called "Federal Accountability Act" (Bill C-2) introduced by the new federal Conservative government have, unfortunately, been exaggerating the good effects of the Act or offering unlikely, worst-case-scenario criticisms (and sometimes both).

Some have called the Act "a recipe for true accountability" while others have criticized it as "overkill" that will shut down access to the government.

The reality is that the Act will, if passed as it has been introduced, close just over 40 of the 75 loopholes and flaws in the federal government's accountability system, and would have also closed more than 50 loopholes if the Conservatives had kept their election promises.  So while it has some of the ingredients, the Act is also missing many key things needed to make it a complete recipe for true accountability.

The Act will strengthen some rules, enforcement processes and some penalties in the key areas of Cabinet appointments, political donations, truth-in-budgeting and government spending (including on polls and advertising) whistleblower protection, ethics for federal politicians and public servants, and lobbying regulation.

Those who think the Act goes too far in these changes have been making the completely ridiculous claim that the Act assumes that everyone in the federal government is a crook and will therefore discourage people from working for the government.  Does the fact that we have laws and enforcement agencies and penalties that apply to the jobs of most Canadians mean that we assume most Canadians are crooks?  Of course not -- it only means that we assume (based on long historical experience) that some people will try to act in dishonest, unethical, secretive, wasteful, or irresponsible ways and that we therefore need strong rules, independent and fully empowered enforcement agencies, and high penalties to discourage, catch and penalize such actions.

As for those who have praised the Act, while many articles and editorials have mentioned that the Conservatives failed to keep their election promise to include many key changes to the federal access-to-information law in the Act (these much-studied changes have instead been referred, in draft form, to a committee for further study), almost all commentators have failed to mention how the Act also breaks many other key Conservative promises, and also how it proposes to weaken ethics rules and fails to close other key accountability loopholes.

Beyond the broken promises to strengthen open government requirements, the Conservatives broke their election promise to, in the Act, "Require ministers and and senior government officials to record their contacts with lobbyists" which would have made all lobbying activities public.  Instead, the Act only requires some lobbyists to disclose some of their communications with top decision-makers.

In addition, the Conservatives promised that the Act would not allow all staff in Cabinet offices to become lobbyists for five years after leaving their position, when in fact the ban will only apply to some staff.

As well, the Conservatives' broke their promise to, in the Act, "Allow members of the public -not just politicians -- to make complaints to the Ethics Commissioner."  Under the Act, only politicians can make such complaints, denying voters their fundamental right to complain about their employees.

The Act also proposes to weaken ethics rules severely by cutting the key requirements to "act with honesty" and "uphold the highest ethical standards" from the ethics rules for Cabinet ministers, ministerial staff, Cabinet appointees and senior public servants, and by failing keep the Conservatives' promises to "Close the loopholes that allow ministers to vote on matters connected with their business interests" and to "Make part-time or non-remunerated ministerial advisers subject to the Ethics Code."

Other key accountability measures missing from the Act include: a ban on ethics watchdogs making secret rulings; an effective system to ensure that public officials do not take secret donations; an effective check on the Prime Minister's power to appoint more than 2,000 people to law enforcement and spending positions; a requirement that the government consult the public in meaningful ways before making major decisions; restrictions on lobbyists working for governments, political parties and candidates and a requirement that they disclose how much they are spending on their campaigns, and; meaningful penalties for unethical, secretive actions (for example, the Act proposes a maximum penalty of $500 for violating only some of the ethics rules).

Overall, the Conservatives' broken promises and missing ingredients mean that if the Act is not strengthened before it is passed the federal government will still be open to undue, undemocratic and unethical influence through secret, high-powered lobbying and secret donations to parties and candidates; dishonest, unethical actions will very likely not be effectively punished, and; Canadians will be denied key information needed to hold the government accountable.

Canadians deserve better than broken election promises, half-measures, and steps backward in government accountability, and they deserve better than articles and editorials that lead them to think that promises have been kept when in fact they have been broken, and that accountability problems have been solved when in fact many will continue.

Hopefully, opposition parties will propose changes to Bill C-2 to correct the flaws left by the promise-breaking Conservatives, as well as to close the more than 20 other key gaps in the federal government's accountability system.

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