Tories less than honest about honesty act

Shortly after being appointed as Canada’s new environment minister on January 4, John Baird declared to reporters: “Last year, I cleaned up government. This year, I’m going to clean up the environment.”

However, an Ottawa-based democracy campaigner alleges that Baird has broken 22 of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 52 pre-election promises to enhance public trust in government.

Duff Conacher, coordinator of the public-interest group Democracy Watch, told the Georgia Straight that Baird, as then–Treasury Board president, was the minister responsible for the Federal Accountability Act, which Parliament passed last month. Conacher claimed that the act fails to eliminate secret lobbying and does away with a requirement for politicians to behave honestly.

“When people say they passed the Accountability Act, first of all, 22 measures were missing,” Conacher said.

All parties approved the legislation on December 12, and since then Baird has often been the recipient of favourable media coverage. For example, on January 5 the Globe and Mail’s senior political writer, Jane Taber, declared that Baird “delivered” on Harper’s campaign promise to make government more accountable.

Conacher, however, claimed that Baird failed on several counts and insisted that the media have not held the Harper government accountable.

On December 12, Democracy Watch refiled an ethics complaint against Baird, Harper, and Prime Minister’s Office director of communications Sandra Buckler to Ethics Commissioner Bernard Shapiro in connection with their public comments about the Federal Accountability Act. Democracy Watch alleged that Baird, Harper, and Buckler were “dishonest” by not admitting that the Conservative government’s “failure to include all measures promised during and after the recent federal election”.

On December 20, Shapiro wrote a letter to Democracy Watch saying he didn’t have statutory authority to investigate Buckler. Shapiro stated that he could only address complaints against parliamentarians if they came from Senators or MPs.

Conacher said he disputes Shapiro’s interpretation of his powers. Conacher acknowledged that Bill C-2 (the Federal Accountability Act) is the strongest anticorruption law passed in Canada. However, Conacher said that it doesn’t come close to what the Conservatives promised. Baird was unavailable for comment by deadline.

The Conservative party platform promised to enshrine the conflict-of-interest code for public-office holders into law. Despite this, Democracy Watch noted that the Federal Accountability Act actually deletes five rules in the old conflict-of-interest code, including one that public-office holders must “act with honesty”.

The new act also scraps a requirement that public-office holders demonstrate “the highest ethical standards so that public confidence and trust in the integrity, objectivity and impartiality of government are conserved and enhanced”.

In addition, the act eliminates a rule that public-office holders must arrange their private affairs so as to “prevent real, potential or apparent conflicts of interest from arising”.

Under the act, they will no longer have to “take care to avoid being placed or the appearance of being placed under an obligation to any person or organization that might profit from special consideration on the part of the public office holder”.

Conacher cited the Conservatives’ refusal to enshrine the conflict-of- interest code into legislation and their decision to allow a continuation of “secret lobbying” as their worst “broken promises” on accountability. Part of Democracy Watch’s complaint to Shapiro alleges that Baird, Harper, and Buckler failed to “act with honesty” by not mentioning that the new act eliminates the requirement for public-office holders to “act with honesty”.

In addition, the Conservative party platform promised that former ministers, their staff, and senior public servants could not lobby the government for five years after leaving office. Moreover, part-time and nonremunerated ministerial advisors would be subject to the ethics code, the Conservatives pledged before the election.

Democracy Watch has pointed out, however, that part-time ministerial staffers who work fewer than 15 hours per week are not required under the act to comply with postemployment rules. And according to Democracy Watch, the five-year lobbying ban applies only to ministerial staff “designated” by the minister—and the minister can choose not to “designate” certain aides.

That’s not all. The Conservative party platform stated that if the party were elected, the government will require “ministers and senior government officials to record their contacts with lobbyists”. Conacher said that despite this pre-election promise, there is no requirement under the Federal Accountability Act for ministers and senior government officials to disclose who has contacted them to influence government policies.

In addition, corporate employees are only required to register as lobbyists if they spend more than 20 percent of their working lives trying to influence government policies.

“As long as someone at a corporation is lobbying less than one day a week—less than 20 percent of their time—they don’t have to be listed,” Conacher said. “If they don’t have to be listed, they don’t have to follow the ethics rules for lobbyists. They can lobby in unethical ways because they are not considered under the law to be a lobbyist.”

He added that if the Conservatives had kept their promise that ministers and senior public officials must disclose who lobbies them, then all of those people would still be listed on a public registry. “That would end secret lobbying, especially by large corporations,” Conacher claimed.

Prior to the 2006 election, the Conservative party platform promised to allow “members of the public—not just politicians—to make complaints to the Ethics Commissioner”. However, the Federal Accountability Act states that the ethics commissioner “shall consider information from the public that is brought to his attention by a member of Parliament”. Democracy Watch interprets this as another broken promise.

The Conservative party platform also included a pledge to “Give the Ethics Commissioner the power to fine violators”. However, this measure is also not included in the Federal Accountability Act.

Conacher noted that 25 of the 30 Conservative promises that were included in the act have still not been proclaimed into law.

“The Whistleblower Protection Act for Ontario government employees was passed in 1995 but had to be proclaimed by cabinet before it actually could come into effect,” he said. “It’s 2007 and it hasn’t been proclaimed.”

He noted that Harper’s cabinet still hasn’t proclaimed the Federal Accountability Act changes to the Access to Information Act, the establishment of a public-appointments commission, and changes to ethics rules and to the ethics-enforcement system. Conacher also said that the cabinet hasn’t proclaimed changes to the Lobbyists Registration Act and the lobbying-enforcement system. Nor has cabinet proclaimed the establishment of a public-procurement ombudsman.

“Cabinet has to approve all of that,” he said. “That’s half the act.”