Tuesday, April 18, 2006

at $120 million more, these changes better be damn good ....

FAA ushers in sweeping new changes to doing politics
As well, the New Access to Information Act could cost $120-million more than it does today.

The Hill Times, April 17th, 2006

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's massive omnibus Federal Accountability Act promises to usher in bold and sweeping changes to campaign financing, lobbying and whistleblowing and to make federal deputy ministers more accountable to Parliament.

Moreover, implementing a new Access to Information Act could cost the federal government almost $120-million more than it does now, says a discussion paper the Conservatives tabled last week.

The government tabled the FAA last Tuesday on the Hill, keeping a campaign promise to introduce it as the first piece of legislation. Although the FAA, or C-2, was tabled with most of what the Conservatives promised, many of the Access to Information reforms in their platform were taken out and packaged as a separate draft bill with a discussion paper--"Strengthening the Access to Information Act: A Discussion of Ideas Intrinsic to the Reform of the Access to Information Act"--to be studied by the House Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee when the House resumes on April 24.

Instead of introducing current Information Commissioner John Reid's proposals as promised in their campaign, the Conservatives expanded coverage of the Access to Information Act in the FAA to include: the Offices of the Information commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner, the Commissioner of Official Languages, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Auditor General, the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, and the Commissioner of Lobbying; Canada Post, Via Rail, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada, Export Development Canada, the National Arts Centre and the Public Sector Pension Investment Board; and the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Canada Foundation for Sustainable Development Technology, and the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation.

In the discussion paper, the government said that while it was in a position to implement some reforms in the FAA, it needed more consultation to implement the others. "The government, through the committee, needs to hear a broad range of views on the possible impacts on core operations of government and on persons who deal with government, before proceeding," the paper says.

The Access to Information program currently costs $50-million, according to estimates from Consulting and Audit Canada. The costs for an expanded program were outlined in an Annex to the discussion paper, bringing the total to approximately $170-million.

It would cost between $40-million and $45-million to include 10 large institutions, 50 new medium-range institutions and "potentially hundreds of small institutions" in the Act's coverage. This takes into account training, advice, and support activities for the Treasury Board Secretariat and the Department of Justice; the review processes of the Information and Privacy Commissioner's offices and the Federal Court.

More than $60-million would be spent on translating documents, while there would be a $5-million increase to account for the workload and potential complaints. In order to "develop, implement and monitor the directives and guidelines required to support" the duty to document initiative, $7-million would be needed for "additional resources required by the Information Commissioner to review related complaints, as well as by the RCMP to investigate allegations of criminal misbehaviour tied to the proposed sanction."

In addition, another $4-million annually would be needed for more resources to meet strict time limits for investigations. Other proposals such as public awareness, increased training and monitoring, significantly revised exemptions and new grounds for complaints would cost an extra $5-million annually.

It's unclear how much the extra coverage the act gets in the FAA will cost, but Treasury Board spokesperson Robert Makichuk said that "the department is working closely with the Minister of Finance to ensure there are sufficient resources allocated in the budget."

While Treasury Board President John Baird (Ottawa West-Nepean, Ont.) said he did not break the Conservative promise to implement meaningful Access to Information reform, critics say this course of action is a stalling tactic.

"I'm terribly disappointed that they've stripped Access to Information out of the Federal Accountability Act," said NDP MP Pat Martin (Winnipeg Centre, Man.), his party's Access to Information critic. "This rips out the heart and soul out of their accountability act. In fact it was the only significant part of their Accountability Act that would really change the culture of Ottawa. I have a saying that freedom of information is the oxygen that democracy breathes so this single most important thing they could've done in terms of transparency and accountability, to implement meaningful ATI reform, the fact that they chose not to tells me that they're afraid of open government just like every other government."

In a scrum outside the House of Commons after Question Period last week, Mr. Baird told reporters that he disagreed with that kind of sentiment. "We're moving forward with all the commitments we made," he said. "The Access to Information Commissioner requested that a committee give closer scrutiny to his views and do some consultation. I can tell you that when I met with him, he said he thought there was no reason why we couldn't get his recommendations done by Christmas. Obviously, we have a tighter time frame on the Federal Accountability Act. Some measures are contained in the Federal Accountability Act. The committee that the commissioner requested to be able to go to, the Information and Privacy Committee, we'll hear his recommendations. We look forward to coming back and completing the circle on those proposals."

Mr. Martin said the government has no intention of passing the reforms. "In my view, this is a stalling tactic so they can get over this minority government situation by delaying and stalling and not doing anything, but as soon as they get their majority, they'll drop it all together," he said. "John Baird claims that he's still going to go forward with Access to Information. I'm not calling John Baird a liar, but I don't want anyone here to think that I believe him. He underestimates the resistance that he's going to find from the PCO, the Crown Corporations and his own senior staff."

Liberal MP and democratic reform critic Stephen Owen (Vancouver Quandra, B.C.) said that the Conservatives are using "selective accountability."

Declared Mr. Owen: "What I don't like so far that I see is the imbalance, the selective accountability. I'm very disappointed that the Access to Information Commissioner's report last year, which was endorsed by a House committee, hasn't been put in this Act as it was promised by the Conservatives during the election."

Mr. Owen said there are some good and bad things about the Act, but that it needs to be better.

DMs to become accountable to Parliament

Meanwhile, Deputy Ministers will be accountable to Parliament for anything that occurs under their watch, according to the Federal Accountability Act, C-2.

Under the Act, "deputy ministers and deputy heads will be accountable before the appropriate committee of Parliament to answer questions related to their responsibilities," which include "ensuring that resources are organized to deliver departmental objectives in compliance with government policy and procedures; ensuring that there are effective systems of internal control; signing departmental accounts; and performing other specific duties assigned by law or regulation in relation to administration of the department."

This provision is modeled slightly after the British "accounting officer" that the Liberal government rejected many times in the last Parliament, but it's unclear if it follows the Westminster completely. One of the key measures in the British model is that all DMs are responsible for anything that happened in the public service under their watch even when moving to other departments or when retiring.

"I'm not exactly sure how well that's articulated, however, I do believe that Parliamentary committees can call anybody at any time therefore they really would have a hard time escaping the long reach of Parliament," said Conservative MP John Williams (Edmonton-St. Albert, Alta.) who chaired the House Public Accounts Committee that recommended it last year.

"We're glad to see the accounting officer concept entrenched in the Federal Accountability Act because that's what the Public Accounts Committee called for," Mr. Williams said. "As you may recall, Reg Alcock rejected the notion but the new government said, 'No, there's a lot of sense to it' so it's in the Federal Accountability Act, and I'm glad to see it."

Robert Makichuk, chief of media relations at the Treasury Board Secretariat, said last week that Canada's model is "unique" because it uses legislation to specify the nature of ministerial accountability and the context in which the accountability exists. The Deputy Ministers are accountable after leaving the department and can be called upon to answer questions at committee. However, Mr. Makichuk said, "There is a difference between responsibility and accountability." The former accounting officer would appear as an individual at committee hearings and "public scrutiny is a form of accountability," Mr. Makichuk said.

Mr. Williams said it won't be a controversial issue that could prevent the FAA from passing when it comes up for discussion in committee or debate. "We have to create an environment where we know where the buck stops," he said. "That's important. Far too often we've had musical chairs. Deputies say the Minister is responsible for the department, not me. Ministers are saying well, I wasn't there when it wasn't happening, so I can't talk for the department. We can't allow that situation to continue on. We need to know where the buck stops. For the responsibilities that directly fall under the Deputy Ministers and the Financial Administration Act, he's going to be accountable before Parliament to explain and justify himself before Parliament. Ministers of course, will continue to be accountable under the doctrine of Ministerial accountability. We have tried to say that people will be fully accountable and that's what it's all about."

NDP Treasury Board critic Paul Dewar (Ottawa Centre, Ont.) said that he is reserving judgment about the accounting officers, explaining that he had only looked at the Conservatives' communications strategy on the FAA rather than looking at the actual bill.

"What we don't want, and I told Baird this, is that we don't want what Alcock was bringing in--the layers and layers of extra 'accountability' which we thought would paralyze Ottawa and not allow public servants to get on with their jobs," he said.

Whistleblowers to receive $1,000 for successful exposures of wrongdoing

Meanwhile, C-2 will also implement whistleblower protections. These new initiatives will give the Public Service Integrity Commissioner more powers and allow the general public to disclose wrongdoing directly to the Commissioner. Previously, only public servants could bring forward allegations of wrongdoing and there was a complex middleperson structure that people needed to go through before a complaint could even reach the Commissioner.

The new law would also give a $1,000 reward if the allegation of wrongdoing is proven true. NDP MP Paul Dewar said that there is no purpose to this reward. "I don't understand where it comes from," he said. "I don't understand why it's necessary. The whistleblowers I've talked to personally don't want cash rewards. They don't want to provide incentives to do the right thing which is what they've all done."

Mr. Dewar said that what should be happening instead is compensating those whistleblowers who have already had their lives destroyed by coming forward. "There's numerous cases in this town of people who've suffered financially and whose careers have been ruined and their lives have been destroyed because they blew the whistle and were hammered for it. Instead focus on that, to make the people whole again," he said. "It's something we'll have to address in committee."

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, meanwhile, feared that the large scope of the act will overshadow the whistleblower protection reforms and that the urge to get it passed before the summer break will water down the reforms. The House should take its time, PIPSC said.

"The urgency to get the Federal Accountability Act passed before the summer recess of the House of Commons may backfire on the government's plans," PIPSC said in a press release last week. "Whistleblower protections are only a part of this large and complex legislation. Given the magnitude of this bill, there is a risk that it will never become law--if this is the case, it would be a shame to again deny public service employees with the protection and with disclosure mechanisms they need."

The Hill Times

The week ahead in Parliament:
Parliament on Easter break, returns April 24

Both the House of Commons and the Senate are on their Easter breaks this week, but are scheduled to return next Monday, April 24, at 11 a.m. for the sixth and final day of debate on the Speech from the Throne.

With the Bloc Québécois amendment to help older workers who lose their jobs passed and the Liberals successfully amending the speech to say that there is "no reason for tax increases or a decrease in anticipated early learning and child care spaces in Canada," it's expected that the Conservatives' first Throne Speech will be passed with no problems.

This leaves the House free to start debating the highly-touted and sweeping omnibus Federal Accountability Act, C-2, which was tabled early last week.

The main estimates, which "identify the spending authorities and amounts to be included in subsequent appropriation bills ... to enable the government to proceed with its spending plans," for fiscal year April 1, 2006 to March 31, 2007 will also be tabled this week by Treasury Board President John Baird (Ottawa West-Nepean, Ont.).

Normally, main estimates follow the budget document, but it's still unclear when the budget will be tabled. The government recently launched a national web-based pre-budget consultation initiative, however, which concludes this Wednesday.

"This approach opens the pre-budget consultations up to all Canadians, giving taxpayers in every corner of this vast country an opportunity to share their views," Finance Minister Jim Flaherty (Whitby-Oshawa, Ont.) said in a press release. "This is another example of how the new government is taking accountability and openness to a higher level."

The government is seeking input on "areas where the government can spend less or deliver programs in a more efficient an effective way."

Meanwhile, the Senate returns this Tuesday.


Treasury Board President John Baird tabled the Conservatives' first piece of legislation last week, the massive, sweeping omnibus Federal Accountability Act, which will make the following changes:

Political party financing

* ban all donations from corporations, unions and organizations

* lower to $1,000 the maximum donation from individuals to registered parties, candidates and leadership contestants

* prohibit cash donations of more than $20

* ban secret donations to candidates, including banning use of "trust fund" money for political purposes

Ethics Commissioner

* combine the Ethics Commissioner and the Senate Ethics Officer into a new position, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

* ensure that the Commissioner has a judicial or quasi-judicial background to administer the codes of conduct

* $500 fines for administrative breaches the FAA's provisions

* prohibit "venetian blind trusts"

* allow any member of the public, not just MPs, to bring forward through an MP allegations of conflict of interest

* prevent the Prime Minister from overruling the Commissioner

Lobbyists Registration Act

* establish a Commissioner of Lobbying, who is an agent of Parliament

* require lobbyists to record registrable activities, limited to "prearranged forms of communication"

* prohibit ministers, ministerial staffers and senior public servants from registering as lobbyists for fives after leaving office

* ban all contingency fees

Parliamentary Budget Authority

* expand the Library of Parliament's mandate to include a Parliamentary Budget Officer to provide objective analysis about the country's finances and economic trends

* provide quarterly updates to government fiscal forecasts

Government Appointments

* consultation of all-party leaders when making appointments which will seek approval of both the House of Commons and the Senate

* remove priority status for ministerial staffers appointed to the federal public service; staffers will be allowed to compete for internal job postings

* allow the Chief Electoral Officer to appoint returning officers

* create a Public Appointments Commission to oversee appointments to agencies, boards and commissions

Procurement of government contracts

* establish a Procurement Auditor to review procurement practices on an ongoing basis

* introduce a Code of Conduct for Procurement

Government polling and advertising

* requirement to publicly release, in writing, polling findings within six months

* prohibit verbal-only reports

* redefine advertising to distinguish between services and announcements etc.

Whistleblower protection

* expand the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner's mandate to include the authority to deal with complaints at the first instance

* establish an independent Public Servants Disclosure Protection Tribunal for cases where settlement cannot be reached

* offences punishable up to $10,000

* award whistleblowers $1,000 upon successful findings of wrongdoing

Access to Information

* expand the Access to Information Act to include seven new agents of Parliament, seven Crown corporations and three foundations

Auditor General

* authority to inquire at own discretion the use of funds that individuals, institutions, and companies receive under a funding agreement with any federal department, agency or Crown Corporation

* provide immunity for the Auditor General from criminal and civil proceedings for actions taken under their duties

Auditing within departments

* designate deputy ministers as accounting officers

* establish process to resolve disputes between ministers and deputy ministers

* implement the Internal Audit Policy to assign responsibilities to the deputy heads and the comptroller general

Director of Public Prosecutions

* create an Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions outside of the Justice Department with an appointment process similar to the new process for Supreme Court judges

* give the prosecutor jurisdiction to conduct prosecutions for offences under federal jurisdiction

* require an annual report to the Attorney General for tabling in Parliament

Status of Government Business

* C-2 Federal Accountability Act (first reading) --Updated to April 13, 2006


wilson61 said...

I'm sure it will be more valuable than the gun registry!