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Thursday
Jun032010

Partisanship 1 Citizens 0

The chaos that erupted at the Government Operations committee yesterday reflects badly on all parliamentarians. Anyone who watches the whole video will be left wondering why we elected these MPs in the first place.

John Baird can be a fine parliamentary performer and his award yesterday as Parliamentarian of the Year is fully justified. However, yesterday was not his finest hour.   Unfortunately, the Liberal Chair, Yasmin Ratansi needs more time to brush up on her rights as Chair and reread the rules before the next meeting too.

Let’s not forget the heart of the matter- should a committee have the right to call staff as witnesses. I would suggest they do, although I am sure many would disagree. Certainly in the past they have called former lower level bureaucrats and former political staff to testify. Chuck Guite and Warren Kinsella are a couple of examples. They testified when committees were investigating the sponsorship scandal in 2004-2005.  The key of course is that these were former staff and the ministers argue that they are the ones responsible for the actions of their present staff.

Also, the government feels their young staffers should not be exposed to the risks of testifying before the committee, yet this country doesn’t hesitate to put young men their age into much greater danger in war time. They are young enough to fight, but to young to take some verbal tongue lashings from a committee.

I sympathize with these staffers. Even if they wanted to show up, they can’t disobey their political bosses and yet they are the ones who will carry the stigma of this with them for the rest of their lives. Few in the public realize that not only can a parliamentary committee subpoena you to appear, but failure to do so can result in a fine or imprisonment. In 1913 the last person to be imprisoned (for refusing to testify at the Public Accounts committee) sat in jail for four months. Wouldn’t you want to be a 20 something former staffer looking for work while being known as the one who went to jail for refusing to testify? Now wouldn’t that make a fine addition to your resume?

Partisanship has its place in politics but at this time it's best for everyone to step back, take a deep breath and look at the potential consequences. Perhaps the solution would be for the committee to delay calling these witnesses until outside independent legal opinion is sought. At least then it should be clear as to who is right in this case.

In the meantime partisanship wins and citizens lose.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday
Jun022010

The taxpayer gets hosed again

Sun Media reports today that some $19.3 million were spent by bureaucrats on meetings leading up to the G8 and G20. Some of it will astound you.

For instance, besides Ottawa, DFAIT had 156 contracts for prep meetings in Victoria, Calgary, Yellowknife and Quebec City.

In Ottawa, they paid $22,000 for flowers and other enhancements at the Royal Ottawa Golf Club. Why? Can’t officials be like the rest of us and work in simple surroundings? Do you have to have the place looking pretty and smiling nice in order to do your work? I don’t think so.

Dinner that night cost another $11,000. This dinner was for the G8 foreign ministers. For goodness sake how many attended to represent eight countries and what did they eat? Wouldn’t you like to see the wine bill for that one?

Yellowknife cost $120,000 to host a meeting for summit support staff. Besides spreading the largess around across the country, why was Yellowknife chosen?  This exercise cost $43,000 in air charters. Did anyone stop to think that another location might be more accessible by regular airlines and more cost effective? There was even $9000 for entertainment. Come on folks, this is supposed to be a working session.

The feds paid another $4000 to take visiting officials to the Quebec Winter Carnival and another $8000 to put everyone up at the Chateau Frontenac. How many of you have stayed there? Quebec is a beautiful city and hopefully every Canadian will get a chance to visit it, but this was a “working session” not lets play tourist.

It’s a good thing we are in a period when departmental spending is being tightly controlled. Can you imagine what it would be like if it wasn’t?

Tuesday
Jun012010

Billion Dollar Boondoggle? Hardly.

The Liberals and NDP continue to harp on the costs of the G8 and G20 summits. Admittedly it’s quite a bill and whether or not there will be value for the amount spent will wait until after the summits are over.

Personally I think summits of this type are a huge waste. A waste of a leader’s time, staff time, the time of law enforcement officials, our military and many others who make these summits work. All of this of course comes with a hefty price tag.

For the most part various government officials representing all the countries spend months seeking common ground on key issues. What remains is the final blessing of the leaders at the summit and the final official communiqué and group photo op.

Is that worth a billion dollars, I don’t think so. With the technology available today, other solutions such as video conferencing are available. Another solution is to put strict limits on the size of the delegations. Do you really need more than 10 or so staff and bureaucrats to represent your country’s interests?

The problem for the government is two fold. If the summits go off without a hitch everyone will feel the money was wasted because there weren’t any incidents to justify the cost. If something serious happens, then they will still be blamed for being unable to stop it while having spent that much money. Essentially a lose-lose scenario.

In the mean time, opposition researchers will have a field day drawing up lists of important items that the billion dollars could have or should have been spent on. What you add to that list is only limited by the imagination of the researchers.

Fortunately, most voters will have made up their mind in the first couple of days news coverage and so far I haven’t met anyone, not even a conservative who is happy with the amount spent. At this stage of the game people are tuning out when the topic comes up. The opposition can go after this every day if they want too, but how many voters are still listening?

The government was wise to welcome Sheila Fraser’s decision to audit these summits. It will be most interesting to see her conclusions as to whether or not the expenses were justified and provided value for money spent.

Thursday
May272010

Blowing in the wind

Ignatieff shifts like sand blowing in the wind when it comes to the Auditor General auditing MPs books.

While publicly stating that the Board of Internal economy should meet with Sheila Fraser to resolve the audit issue, we learn that internally, Iggy is asking his MPs not to be transparent and to refrain from posting their accounts and spending online. (Globe and Mail, May 27, 2010)

One position for the media and public, and a different one for his own MPs

Could Iggy be practicing a “culture of deceit?”

Canadians hear him say the government must be open, transparent and accountable. Liberal MPs are told; don’t post your numbers on your web site.

Why shouldn’t they? If they choose to be open and accountable, what is wrong with that? He should be congratulating them.

Why the double speak? It’s a simple issue. Either you are in favour or against letting the Auditor General look at MPs books. Admittedly Fraser only wants to do a few samples and not audit all MPs just yet. But what Iggy and quite a few others must fear is that should she find a problem, she may come back and ask for a full audit.

We know Iggy doesn’t think restaurant receipts need to be looked at, the question is why? I do remember a Liberal minister who got into quite a bit of hot water for a very expensive $207 pizza dinner for three people. Is Iggy trying to hide something that he doesn’t want Canadians to see?

Let’s look at Iggy's position on the audit:

1. A bad idea: "I understand what Canadians are saying. They want accountability and transparency, but I don't think they want us to be going through our receipts for this meal and that meal" (May 19, 2010)

2. A good idea: "What I mean is, it's important Canadians know the money we spent is honestly accounted for, and that's the kind of solution that we need to look for.” (May 19, 2010)

 

3. A bad idea: "There is accountability that is in itself a waste of public money. Do you understand what I am saying?"

4.
A good idea:” is "entirely in favour" of Fraser making sure the financial controls are "good and right and serving Canadians." (May 26, 2010)

5. A bad idea: Iggy asks Liberal MPs not to post their expenses online. (May 26, 2010)

Canadians want to know where the Liberal leader stands. Unfortunately what you learn depends on the time of day and who he is speaking too.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday
May252010

Another show down looms

The recent announcement by Jay Hill, the Government House Leader, that ministerial staffers will no longer appear before committees, opens up a Pandora’s Box of potential issues.

The first issue of course is who is supreme? Is it Parliament as represented by its MPs on committees or is it the Prime Minister’s Office? Make no doubt about it, if they didn’t dream this policy up, PMO would have to sign off on this one.

Milliken’s ruling on the detainee documents would support the supremacy of Parliament. Committees have traditionally been masters of their own destiny and called whoever they wished to testify. Taking away that right is a huge issue.

If ministers are now to take full responsibility for their staffs and departments then every single mistake will now land on their doorstep. True responsible government would see minister’s take full responsibility for everything in their department. Are they only taking responsibility for their office or for the entire department? It was Jay Hill who said ““Ministers are individually and collectively responsible to the House of Commons for the policies, programs and activities of the Government.” So which is it?

If Dimitri Soudas is called as a witness and under these guidelines refuses to appear, his minister is the Prime Minister. Soudas reports to the PM, not John Baird or anyone else other than Guy Giorno. This would mean the PM is now responsible for appearing and representing some 100 plus staff. That’s insane.

If as happens recently Baird shows up instead of the PM, does this mean that PMO can pick whomever they want to show up at committee on behalf of a staffer. It flies against the very principles of the new decision on ministerial responsibility.

What about the individual staffer who has been accused rightly or wrongly by committee members? Do they not have the right to defend themselves? Under this system the answer would be no. Your proxy would have to defend you. If you were a staffer, wouldn’t that make you all warm and fuzzy?

Committees have several rarely used powers such as the right to subpoena individuals. If a staffer is subpoenaed, they are placed in greater jeopardy than if they simply went and got it over with.

What happens to former staff if issues are uncovered years later? Are they protected by the minister of the day who could even be from a different party? Or is this just a convenience for current staff? Who will be paying the legal bills of past and present staff subpoenaed by a committee?

Committees also have a responsibility to the people of Canada. When they become so partisan that they cease to work effectively, they are doing the country a disservice. It’s interesting to note that two of the worse examples of extreme partisanship have been at the Ethics Committee chaired by Paul Szabo. The Mulroney-Schreiber hears were one of the worse cases seen to date. As Chair Szabo went way overboard in supporting Schreiber to the point where any sense of balance went out the window and it began to look like a kangaroo court. That charade cost the taxpayers at least two million dollars for Mulroney’s legal fees and nightly newscasts of the daily goings on certainly helped lower public confidence in committee work.

Committees certainly have the right to investigate issues that they deem important, and so they should. But when they become too partisan, they become dysfunctional and then they serve little purpose other than to give the media some good clips and quotes. As Chair, Szabo can rule on the types of questions, their focus and maintain decorum if he so chooses. One can certainly question Szabo’s will or maybe it’s ability, to do so. Jay Hill was right when he referred to hostile committees.

By the time his latest investigation finishes getting legal opinions; subpoenaing individuals etc, how many more millions will this cost the taxpayer yet again?  As Chair Szabo has a responsibility to the public and to the whole committee, not just to his partisans and other opposition MPs.  Politically, the Liberals should be careful what they seek now and try to enforce now, as one day they may be on the receiving end.

And so another showdown looms. What is the bet that this also goes to the Speaker for another ruling. Meanwhile Canadians look away in disgust at all the goings on and politicians wring their hands and wonder why voters have given up on Parliament.