Set out below is a letter to the editor by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher which was published in slightly different, edited form in the November 17, 2008 issue of the Hill Times
While the NDP's Karl Belanger came closest of the three "Spin Doctors" (Hill Times, November 10, 2008) to offering a clear answer about what is needed to have an "independent" Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO), he still qualified his statement that the officer "should be an independent officer of Parliament" by saying "if clarifications are needed in the legislation, MPs should make it happen."
Meanwhile, the Conservatives' Mike Storeshaw seemed to agree that "there are bugs to be worked out" with the PBO, but didn't specify what they were, while the Liberals Michael Gendron made the decidedly vague statement "if it becomes obvious" that the PBO "requires the independence that comes with being an officer of Parliament, then that might be the eventual outcome".
There is no "if" or "might" -- the Conservatives broke their 2006 election promise to establish an independent PBO through their so-called "Federal Accountability Act", and the PBO needs to made independent as soon as legislatively possible, as do many other so-called "watchdogs" who are actually vulnerable lapdogs in key ways.
To be an actually independent watchdog, the officer/commissioner/agency head must be appointed through as non-partisan a process as possible, after an arms-length and merit-based search process; must have a fixed term of office with dismissal only possible for cause; must have control over budget, staffing and release of all reports, and; must have the power to penalize violators of whatever law the watchdog is enforcing.
Because the Conservatives broke their 2006 election promise to establish an independent Public Appointments Commission to help ensure merit-based search processes, and because opposition party leaders are only consulted on nominees, none of the current so-called "watchdogs" (Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, Senate Ethics Officer, Commissioner of Lobbying, Information Commissioner, Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, Auditor General, Chief Electoral Officer, Commissioner of Elections, Privacy Commissioner, Procurement Ombudsman and PBO) were appointed in the way needed to ensure their independence.
Only the Ethics Commissioner submits her office's proposed budget to the Speaker of the House (instead of to the Treasury Board minister), and none of the "watchdogs" have the right in law to the annual funding they need to fulfill their mandate (so they are all constantly under the threat that their budgets will be cut if they actually do their job).
Cabinet is not even required to appoint a Procurement Ombudsman, and the Procurement Ombudsman and PBO (the two "watchdogs" who are not Officers of Parliament) can be fired by Cabinet at any time for any reason (such as for actually doing their job).
And none of these so-called watchdogs can penalize anyone for violating the key good government laws they supposedly enforce (which is why so many politicians and government officials ignore the laws year after year, decade after decade). The Senate Ethics Officer can't even investigate a senator unless a committee of senators approves the investigation.
Finally, the other so-called "watchdogs" who are Officers of Parliament cannot release a report at any time in any way they like -- they must all table reports in Parliament. So even if the PBO was made an Officer of Parliament, it wouldn't solve the problem that has caused the recent media coverage about the PBO, as all such Officers are under the control of the Speakers of the House of Commons and
So, what MPs (and Senators) should make happen as soon as possible is a comprehensive law that changes all of the lapdogs we have watching federal politicians and the federal government into actual watchdogs (and, while they're at it, MPs and Senators should close all the loopholes and extend all the laws the watchdogs enforce to everyone involved in federal politics, including all candidates, politicians and political staff, all government institutions, and all
In other words, MPs and Senators should pass an actual "Federal Accountability Act" since the Act the Conservatives introduced and Parliament passed in December 2006 did not contain 28 of the measures promised by the Conservatives, nor many other key measures needed to ensure everyone in federal politics is effectively required to act honestly, ethically, openly, representatively and to prevent waste. (To see details about the missing measures, click here)
Duff Conacher, Coordinator
For more details, go to Democracy Watch's Voter Rights Campaign page or Government Ethics Campaign