Doug Ford’s pre-Christ­mas at­tack on ac­count­abil­ity

The Niagara Falls Review - - Opinion - JOHN MILLOY

Sev­eral years ago a group of prom­i­nent Cana­dian au­thors were asked to come up with the three most bor­ing words in the English lan­guage. Their an­swer: of­fi­cers of par­lia­ment.

OK, I made that up.

But you have to ad­mit dis­cus­sions around the role of in­de­pen­dent agents of the leg­is­la­ture ranks pretty high on the bor­ing me­ter. But bor­ing doesn’t mean unim­por­tant. We should all be con­cerned the way the Ford gov­ern­ment re­cently elim­i­nated three of these of­fi­cers.

So what are of­fi­cers of par­lia­ment or, to put it in an On­tario con­text, of­fi­cers of the leg­is­la­ture? In short, they are peo­ple ap­pointed by the leg­is­la­ture to in­de­pen­dently re­view gov­ern­ment ac­tiv­i­ties. They in­clude On­tario’s au­di­tor gen­eral, om­buds­man, and our in­for­ma­tion and pri­vacy com­mis­sioner.

Al­though each is dif­fer­ent, the one thing they all have in com­mon is their in­de­pen­dence. Free to in­ves­ti­gate and crit­i­cize the gov­ern­ment to their heart’s con­tent, it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to shut down their in­quiries, muz­zle them or re­move them from of­fice. They re­port to the leg­is­la­ture, not the gov­ern­ment.

As the pub­lic has be­come in­creas­ingly sus­pi­cious of politi­cians, the role and stature of these of­fi­cers has grown. As a re­sult, op­po­si­tion par­ties love them. Gov­ern­ments, mean­while, of­ten find them a pain in their back­side, but learn to ac­cept their scru­tiny as sim­ply one of the chal­lenges of the job.

Un­til now.

In a sur­pris­ing move, the Ford gov­ern­ment passed leg­is­la­tion just be­fore Christ­mas elim­i­nat­ing three of these of­fi­cers. Claim­ing that they rep­re­sented an “un­nec­es­sary cost,” the role of On­tario’s en­vi­ron­men­tal com­mis­sioner will be trans­ferred to the au­di­tor gen­eral, while the func­tions of the child ad­vo­cate and French lan­guage com­mis­sioner will be moved to the om­buds­man.

Other than a few ed­i­to­ri­als and col­umns, no one seemed to care. The sole ex­cep­tion was the Fran­co­phone com­mu­nity which raised such a ruckus that the gov­ern­ment promised to recre­ate the French lan­guage com­mis­sioner’s role within the om­buds­man’s of­fice through the ap­point­ment of a spe­cial deputy.

We might all soon re­gret that there wasn’t a sim­i­lar out­cry about the other func­tions.

We live in a noisy world where it is tough to give in­di­vid­ual is­sues pro­file. Al­though I am con­fi­dent that the au­di­tor gen­eral and om­buds­man will do their best, these new ar­eas of re­spon­si­bil­ity will sim­ply be­come just other items on their al­ready large to-do lists and lack the pro­file that they once re­ceived.

In an age when en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues rep­re­sent one of our great­est pub­lic pol­icy chal­lenges, why for ex­am­ple, would we shunt these is­sues to some­one whose pur­pose is to do value-for-money au­dits? And al­though part of the child ad­vo­cate’s role is sim­i­lar to that of the om­buds­man, they are also charged with ad­vo­cat­ing for the rights of some of On­tario’s most vul­ner­a­ble cit­i­zens — our kids. The re­sponse from the min­is­ter in charge of chil­dren that she will now be On­tario’s “fiercest child ad­vo­cate” demon­strates a to­tal lack of un­der­stand­ing of the con­cept of ac­count­abil­ity.

But there are other equally dis­turb­ing as­pects about the move that don’t bode well for the fu­ture.

The first is the Ford gov­ern­ment’s claim that this is about sav­ing money. Is “sav­ing money” go­ing to be the Ford gov­ern­ment’s easy jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for shut­ting down ac­count­abil­ity mea­sures?

There are al­ready signs that the om­buds­man is look­ing to have his bud­get in­creased to un­der­take his new re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

The sec­ond is the way the gov­ern­ment ig­nored the leg­is­la­ture in de­vel­op­ing this pol­icy. It makes sense to re­view the num­ber and func­tion of our many of­fi­cers of the leg­is­la­ture on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. But they don’t work for the gov­ern­ment — they work for all MPPs. Mem­bers of the leg­is­la­ture should have been con­sulted.

Within Canada there are le­git­i­mate con­cerns about the un­bri­dled power of ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ments. On­tar­i­ans should not let the Christ­mas hol­i­days erase our mem­o­ries of this seem­ingly self-serv­ing move to duck ac­count­abil­ity, and the ham­fisted way it was done.

John Milloy is a for­mer MPP and On­tario Lib­eral cab­i­net min­is­ter cur­rently serv­ing as the di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for Pub­lic Ethics and as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of pub­lic ethics at Martin Luther Univer­sity Col­lege, and the in­au­gu­ral prac­ti­tioner in res­i­dence in Wil­frid Lau­rier Univer­sity’s po­lit­i­cal sci­ence depart­ment. He is also a lec­turer in the Univer­sity of Water­loo. Email: jmil­[email protected] Twit­ter @John Milloy. A ver­sion of this col­umn was orig­i­nally pub­lished in the on­line pub­li­ca­tion QP Brief­ing.

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