Inside Parliament

Harper's 'Accountability' Performance

From the vantage point of the back rooms and offices of the House of Commons, things in Ottawa are the same as they ever were or even worse.

By Praesto Presto
Published May 18, 2007

The federal Conservative government talks a mean game when it comes to accountability. They chastise government largesse and champion politics with integrity and transparency. It is a clever pitch, and as the cornerstone of the Conservative Party's electoral strategy in 2006, it won them a government.

Having won office, the Prime Minister's mantra on accountability and integrity is even more compelling, principally because Canadians were told that his government would be different from previous administrations. The Prime Minister invested all of his party's political capital, and his own, in the notion that he represented a new way of doing business in Ottawa.

It is fair then, that 18 months into his mandate Canadians should try and assess the Prime Minister's performance. Has he renewed political transparency in Ottawa; is his government accountable; does it possess integrity?

If you were to answer these questions based on the public policies and sound bites produced by the Prime Minister and his cabinet, you might assume that he was living up to most of his own expectations.

Same as it Ever Was

However, from the vantage point of the back rooms and offices of the House of Commons, things in Ottawa are the same as they ever were, maybe even worse.

I say worse, because we now have a Prime Minister who is bent on preserving his moral principles - even if it means he is breaking them.

If we dispense with the notion that a government has to preserve its power at any cost - even at the cost of its moral principles - then we can confidently say that Stephen Harper's government has no integrity and is not interested in transparency.

His Members routinely engage in political obfuscation. They obscure unpleasant facts about the government, they stall House of Commons Standing Committees and are routinely dispatched to filibuster motions or discredit witnesses at these tense meetings.

The last four months are replete with examples, but these don't always receive press coverage. This could be partly because the goings-on of a parliamentary committee are, to be frank, a bit boring.

It could also be because underhanded procedural tactics at the Commons committee level are well documented: an improvised delay, witness defamation, insults, gerrymandering the terms of a debate.

From the Moral High Ground

These are not new tactics in the routine business of Parliament, but that's just the point: Stephen Harper promised a new, more effective style of government. He preached from the moral high ground.

So, when Conservative member Mike Wallace (Burlington) spoke for three hours at a committee meeting yesterday in an apparent attempt to prevent an investigation into why Foreign Affairs officials censored documents about the abuse and torture of Afghan detainees, it is hard to believe that it is anything but politics as usual in Ottawa. Gloria Galloway recounts the incident in the Globe and Mail.

Mike Wallace regaled fellow members of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics with details of the federal Access to Information Act for the duration of his address. His lengthy discourse in a hot room of Parliament's West Block stalled an opposition motion that the committee examine the editing of documents showing that the Harper government knew that prisoners held by Afghan security forces faced the possibility of torture, abuse and extra-judicial killing. [...]

For a while it seemed Mr. Wallace was prepared to continue his delaying tactics until the opposition gave-up and went home. And it was something of a surprise when his speech came to an abrupt end shortly after reporters entered the room.

[Read the transcript of the committee hearing.]

Apparently, the Conservative government's ethical obligations fall just shy of full disclosure, especially if that means admitting that you made a mistake.

It's hard to believe that Mr. Wallace acted alone in this. At one point during the lengthy ramble, committee Chairperson and Liberal member Tom Wappel (Scarborough) was approached by a staff person from the Conservative Whip's office and informed that Conservative members were planning to continue discussion on the motion until the committee adjourned.

Shutting Down Parliamentary Hearings

On the very same day, at the House Standing Committee on International Trade, committee Chairperson and Conservative member Leon Benoit (Vegreville - Wainwright) unilaterally adjourned a meeting and stormed from the room, followed by three of the four other Conservative members present.

What was the cause of Mr. Benoit's adjournment? Ostensibly, it was a dissenting opinions being offered by committee witness and fellow Albertan, professor Gordon Laxer of the University of Alberta.

Professor Laxer was testifying on behalf of the Alberta-based Parkland Institute about concerns that North American integration policies being pursued by the Conservative government could disrupt the security of Canada's energy resources.

Ottawa Citizen contributor Kelly Patterson describes the occurrence in the Ottawa Citizen.

Amid heated charges of a cover-up, Tory MPs yesterday abruptly shut down parliamentary hearings on a controversial plan to further integrate Canada and the U.S. The firestorm erupted within minutes of testimony by University of Alberta Professor Gordon Laxer that Canadians will be left "to freeze in the dark" if the government forges ahead with plans to integrate energy supplies across North America.

He was testifying about concerns that the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), a 2005 accord by the U.S., Canada, and Mexico to streamline economic and security rules across the continent. The deal, which calls North American "energy security" a priority, will commit Canada to ensuring American energy supplies even though Canada itself - unlike most industrialized nations - has no national plan or reserves to protect its own supplies he argued.

At that point, Tory MP Leon Benoit, chair of the committee that was holding the SPP hearings, ordered Mr. Laxer to halt his testimony, saying it was not relevant. Opposition MPs called for and won, a vote to overrule Mr. Benoit's ruling. Mr. Benoit then threw down his pen, declaring, "This meeting is adjourned," and stormed out followed by three of the four Conservative members.

[Read the transcript of the committee hearing.]

Re-Imagining Parliamentary Affairs

It is alarming to consider that this is how parliamentary affairs are being re-imagined by Canada's new Conservative government. It was still unapparent at the time this was written whether Mr. Benoit even had the authority to adjourn the committee meeting at his own prerogative.

Their Chair does not govern a Commons committee. They are consultative bodies and although they operate along a partisan continuum, their role should not be diminished by the political thrust-and-parry between political parties.

So, returning to the central question, has the Prime Minister renewed the political transparency in Ottawa; is his government accountable; does it possess integrity?

The Prime Minister's willingness to minimize political fallout is precluding his chance to make substantive improvements to the transparency, integrity and accountability of his government. He has advertised a moral standard that his government is incapable of exemplifying, principally because it is too concerned with political gain.

For Harper to survive politically, he is more interested in misleading the public than he is interested in telling the truth.

Praesto Presto is a political analyst working in the non-profit sector at the federal level. Formerly residing in Ottawa, she has returned to Hamilton, where municipal affairs are once again grabbing her attention. She understands the minefield of federal politics well enough to prefer a pseudonym.

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By Al Rathbone (anonymous) | Posted May 18, 2007 at 22:04:18

Of course the Conservatives do it. Every party does. It was worst with the majority governments that preceded the last two minorities. At that point the government controls a majority of seats in the House and in all the committees. Hows that for accountable?

As much as I wish he'd be more accountable, I wasn't expecting a huge change from Harper, just one or two more steps along the road to true democracy.

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