Yes, we can trust Ottawa again

Sean Bruyea

Holding government accountable has been granted a ray of hope. Democracy Watch may proceed with a private prosecution of Nigel Wright for the secretive payment of $90,000 to Senator Mike Duffy. This initiative has much wider implications for ensuring greater accountability of Ottawa’s oversight agencies which have been rendered largely ineffective by design and/or management. The end result could be a federal government which actually becomes more transparent and accountable.

Duff Connacher of Democracy Watch accuses the RCMP of “covering up” any justification the federal agency may have in failing to prosecute Wright. The RCMP is one of the penultimate agencies of accountability and oversight in Canada. How do we as Canadians safeguard democracy and the rule of law if these watchdogs fail to do their job?

Politicians have exhausted our trust that they seek good governance in Ottawa. Meanwhile MPs have been complicit or apathetic to the increasing ineffectiveness of offices created ostensibly to ensure accountable and transparent government.

Politicians and their parties come and go but the bureaucracy is the eternal rock beneath the immature antics of Parliament. In spite of increasing autocratic tendencies in our current government, MPs appear unwilling or unable to make public servants accountable, let alone make government transparent.

In darkness, mould and rot reign supreme. Secrecy is a darkness which allows apathy, self-interest, incompetence and all species of corruption to scurry about. Canada’s Access to Information and Privacy regimes are sold as the light to disinfect these ailments. However, both are grossly outdated and have failed, especially the Access to Information (ATI) Act. Hundreds of recommendations to improve both legislation and the offices have been put forward by Parliament and Information Commissioners themselves. Senior bureaucracy ignores most.

In calling the system broken, Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault, joins the ranks of her predecessors Robert Marleau, John Reid and nearly every commissioner since the creation of the regime in 1983.

Governments “would much prefer to operate in total secrecy. It’s in their nature, ” Rick Mercer rants. “Money and secrecy: what could go wrong? It’s such a good duo. It’s right up there with gasoline and matches.”

The Privacy Act is equally flawed and along with the ATI and public service ethics legislation is absent teeth. No one can be prosecuted for violating these acts. In my case, even though the Privacy Commissioner ruled that Veterans Affairs broke the law in an “alarming” and “entirely inappropriate manner”, not one of the senior bureaucrats involved was sanctioned. Most received performance bonuses during the breaches and after the Privacy Commissioner’s findings.

Senior bureaucrats’ arrogance is the crux of the problem. They write the laws and install colleagues to oversee other senior bureaucrats. Senior mandarins have a deeply indoctrinated culture to, what insiders call, ‘play nicely in the sandbox’. Senior executives don’t finger point at other senior bureaucrats.

The inept management of the Office of the Public Service Integrity Commissioner is a perfect example. The offices of Christiane Ouimet and Mario Dion have both been condemned by the Auditor General, perhaps the only oversight agency with any structural independence. This independence is principally due to the hiring of Chartered Accountants, an occupation accountable first and foremost to their ethical and professional standards, not to their public service buddies.

Bureaucratic collegiality and oversight are dangerous collaborators in the destruction of ethical and therefore accountable government. David Hutton of FAIR Whistleblower explains protecting those in the senior public service is a “career-enhancing prerequisite.” Mario Dion has repeatedly refused to publicly name those few senior bureaucrats he determined broke the law even though these bureaucrats have destroyed whistleblowers’ lives.

The door must be open in Ottawa for private prosecutions. All Canadians have a right to initiate a private prosecution for an indictable offence. However laws overseeing the public service and MPs have no consequence for breaking the law. Those that do, such as the Lobbying Act, have not witnessed a single prosecution.

The Department of Justice website explains that a “feature of the English common law was the view that it was not only the privilege but the duty of the private citizen to preserve the King’s Peace and bring offenders to justice.” Empowering the citizen is key to a successful democracy. Senior bureaucrats and politicians have done great damage to democracy in disempowering Canadians’ right to hold Ottawa accountable outside elections.

All oversight bodies must be strengthened by appointing impartial non-bureaucrats to manage them. Their respective legislations need to be thoroughly reviewed publicly and include mandatory minimum penalties for violating the law. Canadians could then initiate prosecutions of bureaucrats and MP’s when oversight agencies fail to do so.

Ottawa’s bureaucracy numbers about 400,000 persons, about 1% of Canada’s population. The 5600 senior bureaucrats comprise just over 1% of the bureaucracy. More than two millennia ago, Aristotle cautioned that democracy unchecked would devolve into oligarchy and self-interest. Most of our watchdogs are much worse than lapdogs. Their ineffectual existence has been a PR red herring to mislead Canadians that Ottawa is keeping self-interest in check.

Holding government accountable is much more than just how it spends our money. Our system of government and all it stands for is the umbrella under which we gather as a society to weather difficult times, the soil which cultivates opportunity and the air which facilitates an atmosphere of trust.

We have rightly lost trust in a system which operates with impunity, wherein the 1% of the 1% decides our destiny in secrecy. Trust cannot exist without accountability and transparency. Without trust in government, we can lose trust in one another. Trust stemming from a truly accountable and transparent government is the ethical bedrock which once made our nation a model of hope to which other nations aspired.

This piece first appeared in the Hill Times on April 28, 2014.