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Will the Accountability Act be hijacked by the unaccountable?

By Adam Taylor and John Williamson
web posted September 11, 2006

Liberal Senators said over the summer they will not be rushed into passing Bill C-2, the Federal Accountability Act. The bill passed the House of Commons on June 21 with support from all parties, including the Opposition Liberals. It now requires approval in the Senate before it becomes law in Canada. The fact the bill received overwhelming support in the democratically-elected lower chamber may cause some to believe its passage in the upper house is a formality. Hopefully this is the case, but political posturing suggests otherwise.

After more than twelve years of Liberal rule, the 105-member Senate is chock-full of Liberal appointees. There are 65 Liberals sitting in the Red Chamber versus the Conservatives' 23. Additionally, there are three "Progressive Conservative" Senators, one New Democrat, five independents and eight vacancies. Liberal Senators have the power to thwart any Conservative legislation by burying a bill in committee or watering it down with amendments. Should this happen to Bill C-2 it will be a slap in the face to the millions of Canadian voters crying out for the government to change the way business is conducted in the nation's capital.

The Federal Accountability Act is a good piece of legislation. It will change the culture in Ottawa. The goings-on of lobbying, ethical oversight, appointments, government contracts, political party donations, and advertising will be subject to clearer rules and greater transparency.

Protection for whistleblowers will be established. The power and scope of the auditor-general and ethics commissioner will be enhanced. Taxpayers will breathe a bit easier knowing the spending of tax dollars will be subject to greater scrutiny. And they will applaud the penalties that will target those who abuse the public's trust.

Bill C-2 is not without flaws. The government abandoned reforming Ottawa's Access to Information Act. This type of "sunshine law" mandates that government records and decisions be made available to the public. It is another line of defense against abuse of tax dollars and secretive government. Other commitments were watered down or remain solely in the hands of Cabinet. For example, the promise of a procurement auditor and the establishment of a parliamentary budget authority will live or die at the mercy of Cabinet.

Other sections of C-2 were amended by the Commons committee studying the legislation. One such casualty was the provision to permit the auditor-general to oversee tax dollars after they are transferred to native bands. Taxpayers currently provide $8-billion a year to reserves across Canada, yet there is no way to scrutinize how that money is spent.

It was opposition members that voted to remove this important reform from the bill. Despite the New Democratic Party's support of the government's Federal Accountability Act, it was Pat Martin, the NDP's normally sound go-to-guy on accountability, who was the swing vote. Mr. Martin's Winnipeg riding has a large number of native voters. Liberal MPs seized this opening to stymie this important section of the bill.

In the Senate, the Liberals can act with impunity. There will be no need for opposition horse trading. They have the votes in the upper house to unilaterally remove any oversight provisions the Liberal Party does not support.

Despite these flaws, the Federal Accountability Act is a step forward. It brings into place laws and mechanisms that were not there before. It fulfills much of what the Conservatives promised to do in the election campaign. It provides an accountability framework on which to build and improve. Yet the democratic will of the Commons could be thwarted in the Senate.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper does not have the option of stacking the Senate with additional appointees like Brian Mulroney did to pass the GST in 1990. For starters, the numbers simply are not there. But even if they were it is the wrong solution. Senate reform is a central policy supported by Mr. Harper and it should remain so. Stacking the Senate will only alienate voters and legitimize the actions of a rogue Senate.

The so-called chamber of sober second thought has come under fire in recent years. Senators are unelected, its regional make-up is horribly flawed, and its members are mostly the partisan faithful of the government of the day.

Senators do not face the public for approval and have little to no authority in the regions they purportedly represent. Canadians elected the Conservative government in large measure on the strength of Mr. Harper's promise to pass the Federal Accountability Act. As such, the Senate should approve Bill C-2.

Should gridlock occur between the House of Commons and the Senate, the Prime Minister should go directly to the people. The Liberal Party lost the last federal election largely on the question of integrity and accountability.

Mr. Harper would be acting in the public interest by dissolving Parliament and calling a general election to be fought on the Federal Accountability Act.

The last "great debate" during a federal election was fought over the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Of course, that issue divided Canadian voters. There is no division among Canadians on the question of a cleaner, more transparent and accountable federal government. ESR

Adam Taylor is research director and John Williamson is federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.


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