By Ryan McGreal
Published November 17, 2009
In 2004, after 11 years of continuous majority government, the Liberal Party of Canada were bumped unceremoniously down to a minority government under new Prime Minister Paul Martin. Two years later, Martin lost even his minority to the recently-united Conservative Party of Canada under leader Stephen Harper.
The deal-breaker for voters was the burgeoning Sponsorship Scandal (dubbed "Adscam" by some wag), in which the Liberals had funneled millions of dollars over eight years through the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) into a grab-bag of Liberal-friendly firms, under the auspices of a program to promote federalism in Quebec.
The story broke when federal Auditor General Sheila Fraser released the infamous report in February 2004 finding that some $100 million of the $250 million total budget for the Sponsorship Program had been handed out to companies with ties to the Liberal Party with little or nothing to show for it.
Prime Minister Martin acted quickly to shut down the program and launch a public inquiry led by Justice John Gomery, but the damage was done. The party was in disarray, Martin used the event to purge the Liberals of Chretien loyalists (the two camps had waged a long internal power struggle during the time that Chretien was Prime Minister and Martin was Finance Minister), and the opposition parties hammered the Liberals relentlessly on ethics and accountability.
The program was justified on the grounds of a crisis (the threat of Quebec secession), allocated through the party executive without parliamentary oversight, and executed with rank partisanship.
The Conservatives ran an aggressive campaign in 2006 with a clear platform of ethics and accountability, promising to introduce new legislation that would prevent such abuses from happening again.
It was enough to win a minority government, and the Conservatives enjoyed considerable latitude despite their minority because the Liberals were in no position to topple the government and campaign.
Unfortunately, the Conservatives did little to improve accountability - their legislation actually reduced the openness and accountability of many government affairs - while dramatically ratcheting down on the flow of information, concentrating power even more tightly in the PMO, and executing a coordinated program to obfuscate, stall and block parliamentary oversight - including a secret handbook to render parliamentary committees dysfunctional.
The Federal Accountability Act the government passed was considerably watered down from the robust legislation they proposed while in opposition. Justice Gomery complained that the Act omitted most of his recommendations.
This pattern of secrecy and throttled accountability applied across the board. Among its many abuses, the government replaced the national science advisor with a council of corporate executives; shut down a public Access to Information database; cut food inspectors and pushed quality control onto food manufacturers, which contributed to the deadly listeriosis outbreak of 2008; appealed court orders to repatriate Canadian citizens being held illegally in other countries; diverted public funds for scientific research into nuclear and oilsands technologies; and actually managed to outdo the Liberals in failing to do anything substantial in response to climate change.
The extent to which the Conservatives have become everything they claimed to oppose has reached the point of absurdity - except that they're still mostly getting a free pass among Canadians.
The newest outrage is the discovery that the $61 billion in federal economic stimulus money - much of which the Conservatives are doling out through a special slush fund - has also fallen prey to the party's relentless partisanship.
It's bad enough that the stimulus money won't do much to stimulate the economy. It's worse that they have exploited public spending for partisan gain by handing out big novelty cheques emblazoned with the Conservative Party logo. Worse still, they have managed, in a few short years, to replace big annual surpluses into a significant structural deficit that will soon provide the excuse to make deep cuts in program spending.
But what's worst about the stimulus program is that the Conservatives seem to have continued their longstanding strategy of vote-buying by funneling money disproportionately into Conservative-friendly ridings.
The Conservatives insist that the money is being spent fairly, but they are so secretive about their process - they're too busy giving out money to break their spending down by riding - that we have to take their word for it.
Does this story sound familiar? The Conservative stimulus program has been justified on the grounds of a crisis (the global recession), allocated through the party executive without parliamentary oversight, and executed with rank partisanship.
The Conservatives truly have become everything they set out to oppose and to fix in government. The main difference between Adscam and Stimscam is the scale. The Liberals misspent $100 million over an eight-year period, amounting to $12.5 million a year, or $0.42 per Canadian per year.
The stimulus pork-barreling is three orders of magnitude larger. The total cost is $61 billion over two years. If we take a conservative estimate of the partisan spending - say, 20 percent of the total - that's $12.2 billion over a two-year period, amounting to $6.1 billion a year or about $185 per Canadian per year.
Will Stephen Harper and company ever be held to account for this ethical scandal? Auditor General Sheila Fraser's recent reports on the government refute the claim that the Conservatives are doing a better job on accountability than their predecessors; but so far the message hasn't sunk in with Canadians.