Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Conservatives getting things done for Conservatives

As Impolitical suggests, you should file this one away and haul it out when the time is right.
Karlheinz Schreiber's descriptions of a shadowy world where operators with corporate cash buy favours from politicians has trained the spotlight again on Conservative promises to tighten lobbying rules, and other unfulfilled aspects of their Federal Accountability Act.

The Act received royal assent exactly one year ago, but critics point out that key elements have never been implemented. Among them, new lobbying regulations that would require individuals to record every meeting they have with a public office holder.

Schreiber, the arms dealer who says he paid former prime minister Brian Mulroney $300,000 in cash for lobbying work, said things work essentially the same in Ottawa as they did 20 years ago when money helped secure huge procurement contracts.

"Today, it's the same as when it was then more or less with the same people to fight for big money," Schreiber told MPs this week.

Not that I would take much of what Schreiber says with more than a grain of salt, but he has certainly raised a good point. Harper hasn't changed much in Ottawa at all. In fact, he has the legislation in place and has either failed to act on on it or has blatantly ignored it.

"To date, the Conservatives have been dining out on the fact they cleaned up Ottawa and did the job, when in actual fact they never implemented several aspects of the Accountability Act that would have changed Ottawa in a significant way," New Democrat MP Pat Martin told reporters Wednesday.

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch said: "Incredibly, it is much more likely that Canadians will be caught and punished for parking illegally, than for a politician to be punished for taking money from a lobbyist in secret."

Treasury Board President Vic Toews told the Commons last week that he would publish new lobbyist rules in January, and implement them sometime in mid-2008. But besides the lobbying measures, the government has also failed to put in place other key promises.

The Conservatives did, however, impose the new accountability rules at the middle civil service levels. In my dealings with Ottawa on a number of issues the flow of official work has slowed as it gets gummed up with emails between departmental officials describing plans to each other without ever getting anything done.


For example, a Parliamentary Budget officer that would ensure the government's budget bookkeeping is in order. Toews' office says that issue is in the hands of the Library of Parliament, which is tasked with recommending a name for the job.

A Public Appointments Commission, designed to avoid political patronage in top government appointments, has also fallen by the wayside. Prime Minister Stephen Harper abruptly cancelled the commission in May when opposition MPs questioned the non-partisanship of the man he chose to head it.

Since then, Harper's government has named dozens of Conservative party activists and former politicians to key federal boards and panels.

"We have backwoods Tories lining up at the trough for their piece of the public action and the reason why is because the PM has kiboshed a key element of the act which is the public appointments commission," NDP MP Charlie Angus told the Commons on Wednesday.

Then there is the case of reality biting Harper on the ass. After promising a better Access to Information Act, he suddenly realized that his weak minority could not withstand active scrutiny. Rather than open government up, he went the other way.

Harper also promised to beef up government transparency when he won office, and introduce separate legislation that would reform the Access to Information Act. That legislation has never materialized.

Information Commissioner Robert Marleau said he wrote to Justice Minister Rob Nicholson in April, asking him to table draft legislation to get the debate going, and perhaps seek the advice of Parliament for its scope. But he said he hasn't received any formal response from the minister.

All parties supported a committee report from 2005 to make changes to the access laws. But that committee has yet to hear from Nicholson on his plans to follow through.

"I ... sensed there was very little appetite for a fundamental review of the statute," Marleau said in an interview.

And then we have the Sandra Buckler effect.

Harper's campaign vow of heightened government accountability and transparency has hit a number of other bumps in the road since he took office. Some of the information roadblocks that have frustrated MPs and reporters include:

-Cabinet ministers who use government aircraft have failed to list those expenses in public quarterly reports.

-A refusal to divulge what taxpayer-funded budget was being used to pay for Harper's personal stylist.

-A failure by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to provide detailed information on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.

-A stonewalling of requests for information on Canada's participation in the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

-A failure to provide a detailed explanation of Canada's new policy on Canadians facing capital punishment abroad.

File it away and jam it in their faces when they tell you how they cleaned up government. The next election would be an appropriate occasion.

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