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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Harper is Right to Reject Gomery #2

I find myself agreeing with Prime Minister Harper’s position on Mr. Justice Gomery’s Phase 2 Report that would have the effect of changing the responsibility and accountability lines between ministers and Parliament. The four key recommendations were too inimical to our traditions and practices to be practical.

That does not mean the issues Gomery identified as to transparency; accountability and the governance culture in the federal polity are not real and serious. It means his recommended changes are not realistic in the larger context of our governance tradition.

Gomery notes that the “so-called ‘sponsorship scandal’ was as aberration” and he seeks to rebalance the roles of Parliament and the executive branch of government as a solution. The Harper Con government is keen to be sure the bureaucracy (and the judiciary too) know their places and how to keep them. That is a good thing but if the response is to increase the powers of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office ostensibly to balance these other institutional influences, where does that put the roles and responsibilities of our Parliamentarians…the lowly backbenchers? How do they get to perform their duties and exercise their responsibilities in such a top down model?

Adscam originated in the Chr├ętien PMO and Parliamentarians were conspicuously absent from any engagement on the issues, especially those MPs who’s constituencies were receiving direct and inapproprite sponsorship benefits. Why did the local MPs not speak up? Were they wilfully blind or kept in total ignorance or were they merely incompetent in failing to question the PMO on accountability and responsibility issues of the sponsorship funding program? Gomery also noted an “excessive deference to the political arm of government within the public service.” How can this ever be a good thing for "peace order and good government?"

These questions and concerns still abide today especially in the highly centralized and controlling Harper PMO. The recent Deputy Minister shuffle culled many senior public servants who may have been seen as "beholden" to the past regime or not as likely to be complacent and compliant to the wishes of “Canada’s new government” (a.k.a. Stephen Harper.)

The elimination of the Court Challenges Program and the dissolution of the Law Reform Commission dispenses with some of the institutional mechanisms that could enhance transparency and accountability. They did this by providing expert advice and opinion with an arms length judiciousness and a professional “indifference” about the politics involved. They could focus more on the legality and appropriateness of certain public policy issues, especially those that impact the rights and privileges of individual citizenship and relations to the state.

Less study, less inquiry, less dissention and discussion and less scrutiny provides for more government efficiency but does nothing for enhanced governance through more transparency and accountability. The Maher Arar case says enough, if no all one needs to know about the symptoms of institutional efficiency trumping good governance and the need for government's accountability and transparency.

Gomery asked the right questions but came up short on workable and appropriate answers. Harper is right to reject those recommendations but the questions still persist especially with the way he is centralizing control in the PMO. This means those questions are becoming more pressing and more important than ever if transparency and accountability are the goals.

Gomery got it half right about the need for transparency nad accountability. Prime Minister Harper in rejecting some of the key second report recommencdations is also half right. It is unfortunate that such half measures seem sufficient enough to satisfy an inadequate governance standard.

Canadians need and deserve better.