Article in the Ottawa Hill Times 22 May 2006
This op-ed was to point out the purposefully misleading titling of a federal Act purporting to be about accountability, and the implications of the fraud..
A genuine Canada Public Accountability Act is not difficult to draw up.
Harper’s Federal Accountability Act Isn’t About Accountability
Stephen Harper’s political advisors can be congratulated on fraudulently yet successfully using the word “accountability” to help make him Prime Minister, and getting away with it.
The apparent Harper strategy goes something like this. Let’s use the word “accountability” as often as we can because voters like the sound of it. They can be predicted to confuse conduct with accountability, so let’s draft an Act prescribing people’s conduct and call it all a Federal Accountability Act. The Opposition won’t turn down motherhood when every page of the Bill is headed “Accountability.” Moreover, we predict that Opposition MPs won’t know what accountability really means or how to hold us effectively to account.
The fraud is that the Bill sets rules of conduct but has nothing to do with accountability. If it did, “accountability” would be defined in the Bill, and it isn’t. Responsibility and conduct are related to accountability, but they are different concepts.
But at least the Prime Minister has placed the word “accountability” before Canadians. It is now time for him to produce genuine accountability. The prestigious mid-70s Independent Review Committee on the Mandate of the Auditor General of Canada authoritatively defined accountability as REPORTING on the discharge of responsibilities. Academics and senior bureaucrats ever since have tried to keep the concept of accountability foggy, but it is the same simple concept society has used for centuries as the basis for financial accountability reporting.
Accountability is the obligation of authorities to explain publicly, fully and fairly, before and after the fact, how they are carrying out responsibilities that affect the public in important ways. It is the obligation to report — to publicly explain intentions and the reasons, intended performance standards and whether they were met, and the learning gained and how it was applied.
But as a concept central to democracy, true accountability may well be ignored for another decade because the Harper accountability Bill ignores it. Alternatively, it can be properly installed in our laws. It is open to our provincial and federal legislators either to make Canada a world leader in public accountability — totally feasible because of who we are and our relatively small population — or allow Canada to be accused in history of negligence in civil rights because its federal government raised the issue of public accountability but refused to install it.
To have full and fair public accounting from authorities is a universal human right, as George Washington observed 200 years ago: “I am sure the mass of Citizens in these United States mean well, and I firmly believe they will always act well, whenever they can obtain a right understanding of matters….” That understanding starts with government’s public accounting for its responsibilities, audited for its fairness and completeness. When citizens have a right understanding of matters, they can more sensibly act to commend, alter or halt a government’s intentions.
Installing genuine public accountability does make an important difference. In Peter Mansbridge’s political panel on CBC TV April 4, the evening of the Throne Speech, Professor David Bercuson said, “Voters are looking for a way to trust politicians again.” Trust in government is a function of how fully and fairly the executive government accounts to Canadians for how it is carrying out its responsibilities. Full and fair public accounting increases trust in authorities and if we don’t have that trust, society doesn’t work properly.
Prime ministers, premiers and ministers of the day will predictably say (without defining what they mean by accountability), “Our government’s accountability reporting is fine as it is, but of course we’re constantly working to improve it.” If so, why do horror stories in safety, justice and spending continue to happen? They happen because the responsible senior officials duck their commonsense management control obligations and don’t publicly account for their responsibilities. What laws have improved public accounting? What laws have set accountability reporting standards for elected and appointed officials for their diligence in informing themselves for their responsibilities?
The public accounting requirement produces needed information that legislators and citizens wouldn’t otherwise get. But equally important, it imposes a self-regulating influence on officials’ intentions and conduct — so long as their accountability reporting is PUBLIC and is subject to audit of its fairness and completeness. Ignoring accountability foregoes this control.
A rule for conduct without an attached public accounting obligation can’t be expected to produce the conduct. In whistleblower protection, for example, the Harper Bill uses over 30 pages to deal with rules of conduct. But nowhere is there the requirement that ministers and deputy ministers publicly assert their own protection performance standards and whether their claimed protection is actually working, based on valid and reliable evidence. We see in the Bill only rules of conduct and ritual investigations — no self-regulating influence on the officials with the protection responsibility. Without public and adequate performance accounting, forget adequate protection for whistleblowers.
If the Prime Minister insists on keeping the Bill’s wrong title as it is, the House of Commons can take it as opening up debate on true accountability to be followed by law this parliament that usefully and accurately defines accountability and installs it across government.
It is up to the PM to decide what he wants as his public accountability legacy with Canadians — and indeed with other nations through providing a nonpartisan model for countries to use in publicly accounting to one another, logically through the UN.Henry E. McCandless is General Convenor of the Citizens’ Circle for Accountability (www.accountabilitycircle.org) and the author of A Citizen’s Guide to Public Accountability (2002). From 1978 to 1996 he was a Principal in the Office of the Auditor General of Canada.