[Democracy Watch Logo] [Op-ed]

New federal government inquiry system needed to ensure alleged wrongdoing is fairly investigated

Set out below is an op-ed by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher which was published in slightly different, edited form in the July 28, 2008 issue of the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, in the July 31, 2008 issue of the Fredericton Daily Gleaner (To see the op-ed on the Gleaner website, click here), and in the August 4, 2008 issue of the Hill Times

The Gomery inquiry into the Liberals’ “Adscam” sponsorship program scandal, the Mulroney-Schreiber inquiry, and other recent investigative hearings by federal parliamentary committees, have revealed that when it comes to discovering the truth in many situations of alleged wrongdoing, the federal government’s inquiry system is broken.

While parliamentary committees have the power to subpoena witnesses and evidence, and while many opposition party supporters may delight in the hearings that have been held examining questionable ruling party activities in the past few years during which we have had a minority federal government, these committees' overall record is not good.

Not surprisingly, the MPs on the committees usually have represented their political party’s interests during hearings, and in votes concerning whether to hold hearings, and what witnesses to call.

The recent hearings into the federal Conservatives’ questionable election spending scheme is only the latest example of an ineffective committee investigation (especially given that a civil court case, and a quasi-criminal investigation, are currently examining the same scheme in a much more fact-based, fair and impartial way).

At the same time, the federal Cabinet’s power to establish a commission of inquiry under the Inquiries Act also deserves to be questioned given the record over the past couple of decades.  

Justice John Gomery, who was appointed by Paul Martin’s Cabinet, has been found by a Federal Court judge to have acted in a manner biased against former Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his Chief of Staff Jean Pelletier, while other Gomery Commission watchers have also noted how Gomery’s final report ignored clear evidence of then-Finance Minister Martin’s knowledge of the sponsorship program.

Conservative Prime Minister Harper and his Cabinet have made every decision about the inquiry into the actions of former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s relations with Karlheinz Schreiber, even though Mr. Harper’s own actions are in question, resulting in an inquiry that will not examine many significant questions about the situation.

Several years ago, then-Prime Minister Chretien’s Cabinet and majority government shut down the inquiry into the armed forces scandal in Somalia when it headed in a direction it didn’t like, and restricted the scope of the inquiry into the tainted blood scandal.

And then, of course, there are all of the inquiries that were called for by opposition parties or political commentators that didn’t occur during the past 20 years when the Conservatives or Liberals had a majority government and, therefore, controlled all parliamentary committees.

In other words, whether an inquiry is launched into allegations of wrongdoing by anyone in the federal government, and whether the inquiry is fair and based on evidence, is determined by the whims of either the leaders and MPs of the ruling party, or of the opposition parties.

Fortunately, there are two simple changes that would solve this unethical, ineffective mess and could be made by the opposition parties very quickly this fall (given that they control a majority of seats in the House of Commons and Senate).  

First, the Inquiries Act should be changed to require approval of a majority of the federal party leaders in the House of Commons to initiate and set the terms of reference for an inquiry, and approval of all party leaders to choose the inquiry commissioner(s) after nominees are screened by the Public Appointments Commission.  

This change would very likely lead to more inquiries being launched with the support of only opposition parties, but each would be overseen by a qualified person who would be chosen by consensus of all party leaders.  Opposition parties would pay a political cost if they launched frivolous inquiries that waste the public’s money.

A key part of this change is to amend the law to require the establishment of the Public Appointments Commission to ensure that inquiry commissioners are qualified.  The Conservatives’ so-called Federal Accountability Act allows, but does not require, Cabinet to create the Commission, and Prime Minister Harper and his Cabinet have so far failed to set it up.

Second, the Parliament of Canada Act should be changed to prohibit committee hearings on matters being dealt with by an inquiry or a court, until the inquiry or court case is over.  This would stop committees from holding redundant, kangaroo-court hearings into subjects that are being examined through judicial processes.

Federal party leaders may not agree with these specific proposed solutions, but all should recognize that a so-called mature democracy such as Canada should have a mature system that ensures fair investigations of alleged wrongdoing by anyone in the federal government, and that Canadians deserve better than the current system which is riddled with conflicts of interest that usually lead to either an unfair, partial investigation, or no investigation at all.
To see the list of 16 very questionable situations in the federal government from the past 15 years that have not been fully and fairly investigated, click here

For more details, go to Democracy Watch's Voter Rights Campaign page or Government Ethics Campaign