Ottawa’s blame game hits a new low with CRA tax idea

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - News - JOHN IBBITSON jib­bit­son@globe­and­

Rev­enue Min­is­ter Diane Le­bouthillier is “deeply dis­ap­pointed” that of­fi­cials in her depart­ment de­cided em­ployee dis­counts should be­come tax­able in­come. And the sad le­gacy of the al-Mashat af­fair plumbs an­other depth.

The name Mo­hammed al-Mashat is all but lost to mem­ory. But in 1991 he was big news, be­cause the af­fair bear­ing his name set a prece­dent for min­is­te­rial re­spon­si­bil­ity that we are liv­ing with to­day.

Mr. al-Mashat was the highly vis­i­ble Iraqi am­bas­sador to Wash­ing­ton dur­ing the first Gulf war. Rather than re­turn to Iraq af­ter that war, he sought and ob­tained asy­lum in Canada, ar­riv­ing as a landed im­mi­grant in March, 1991.

The fact that it took mere weeks to ap­prove his ap­pli­ca­tion, rather than the usual months or years, led the me­dia and op­po­si­tion politi­cians to won­der what quid pro quo might be in­volved. Was Canada do­ing the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency a favour by tak­ing in a high-pro­file Iraqi who might have valu­able in­tel­li­gence? Who had ap­proved his swift ar­rival? What, ex­actly, was go­ing on?

Joe Clark was sec­re­tary of state for ex­ter­nal af­fairs at the time of Mr. al-Mashat’s ar­rival, and Bar­bara McDougall was im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter. Ei­ther or both should have taken re­spon­si­bil­ity for the de­ci­sion to let him jump the queue. In­stead, they blamed pub­lic ser­vants for act­ing with­out their knowl­edge or con­sent.

The pub­lic ser­vants stoutly re­fused to ac­cept blame. A par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee in­ves­ti­gated the mat­ter, but the re­sult left no one sat­is­fied.

The af­fair was a tawdry, un­seemly ex­er­cise in blame-shift­ing that led ex­perts in pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion to de­spair for the prin­ci­ple of min­is­te­rial re­spon­si­bil­ity within the Cana­dian par­lia­men­tary sys­tem.

Be­fore al-Mashat, there was at least a pre­sump­tion that min­is­ters were re­spon­si­ble for the ac­tions of their of­fi­cials, whether or not they knew about those ac­tions. The al-Mashat af­fair un­der­mined that pre­sump­tion. This did not im­prove the qual­ity of de­ci­sion-mak­ing within the pub­lic ser­vice.

The first Stephen Harper govern­ment sought to toughen ac­count­abil­ity, declar­ing in 2007 that min­is­ters were re­spon­si­ble to Par­lia­ment “for their own ac­tions and those of their depart­ment, in­clud­ing the ac­tions of all of­fi­cials un­der their man­age­ment and di­rec­tion, whether or not the min­is­ters had prior knowl­edge.”

But in 2011, the guide­lines were weak­ened, with this ad­di­tion: “Min­is­te­rial ac­count­abil­ity to Par­lia­ment does not mean that a min­is­ter is pre­sumed to have knowl­edge of ev­ery mat­ter that oc­curs within his or her depart­ment or port­fo­lio, nor that the min­is­ter is nec­es­sar­ily re­quired to ac­cept blame for ev­ery mat­ter.”

In prac­tice, min­is­ters now do ev­ery­thing in their power to avoid ac­cept­ing blame for ev­ery mat­ter.

Wise ob­servers re­luc­tantly ac­cept the ero­sion of min­is­te­rial re­spon­si­bil­ity as a fact of con­tem­po­rary pub­lic life.

“In the par­lia­men­tary con­text … the govern­ment and only the govern­ment is re­spon­si­ble for govern­ment pol­icy or ac­tions,” ob­served Rob Walsh, the for­mer law clerk of the House of Com­mons, in an e-mail ex­change. “The govern­ment is not al­lowed to duck its ac­count­abil­ity by blam­ing staff. Hence the crit­i­cisms in the al-Mashat af­fair.”

How­ever, “in the real world of pub­lic/me­dia dis­course … I sup­pose the govern­ment can blame whomever, though it casts a poor light on the govern­ment’s man­age­ment of its de­part­ments.”

But David Zuss­man, a for­mer com­mis­sioner of the pub­lic ser­vice who now teaches public­ser­vice man­age­ment at the uni­ver­si­ties of Vic­to­ria and Ottawa, points out that “min­is­ters are still re­spon­si­ble for what hap­pens in their depart­ment. It can’t be any other way. We haven’t given up that prin­ci­ple.”

In which case, in light of Ms. Le­bouthillier’s re­pu­di­a­tion of her own depart­ment, “you can le­git­i­mately ask, okay, does that mean the rules have changed, now? … If not the old prin­ci­ple, then what’s the new one?”

Govern­ment bu­reau­cra­cies are cum­ber­some and risk-averse in part be­cause bu­reau­crats rightly fear the con­se­quences of wrong de­ci­sions. They know their min­is­ter will not have their backs.

Ms. Le­bouthillier could have apol­o­gized, said the mis­take was on her, that she was re­scind­ing the new reg­u­la­tions and would con­sult widely be­fore of­fer­ing any fu­ture re­forms. In­stead, her staff said she was “deeply dis­ap­pointed” in the peo­ple who work for her.

Don’t ex­pect any­thing in­no­va­tive to come out of the Canada Rev­enue Agency for a very long time.

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