Ac­count­abil­ity re­forms needed in wake of SNC-Lavalin af­fair

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - Opinion - AARON WUDRICK Aaron Wudrick is di­rec­tor of the Cana­dian Tax­pay­ers Fed­er­a­tion. This originally ap­peared at Pol­icy Op­tions.

The pun­dits will be chat­ter­ing about the po­lit­i­cal im­pact of fed­eral Ethics Com­mis­sioner Mario Dion’s bomb­shell re­port into the SNC-Lavalin af­fair un­til election day. But this is also an op­por­tu­nity to strengthen govern­ment ac­count­abil­ity to pre­vent a re­peat of the cir­cum­stances that gave rise to the scan­dal. Dion con­cluded Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau broke con­flict-ofin­ter­est laws by pres­sur­ing for­mer at­tor­ney gen­eral Jody Wil­son-Ray­bould to in­ter­vene in a de­ci­sion not to de­fer crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion of the firm.

Which­ever party forms govern­ment af­ter Oct. 21 must im­ple­ment two key re­forms: sep­a­rat­ing the roles of the at­tor­ney gen­eral and min­is­ter of jus­tice; and, putting an end to om­nibus bills, which pre­vent proper par­lia­men­tary scru­tiny.

A re­view au­thored by for­mer Lib­eral at­tor­ney gen­eral and jus­tice min­is­ter Anne McLel­lan — and re­leased on the same day in mid-Au­gust as the ethics re­port — con­cludes that the dual-role sta­tus quo is fine, and that no changes are needed to “pro­mote pub­lic con­fi­dence.” The re­view ar­gues that keeping the roles to­gether al­lows for “syn­er­gies” and “per­spec­tive.” But with all due re­spect to McLel­lan, the dam­age done by the SNC-Lavalin scan­dal has dam­aged pub­lic con­fi­dence and, far from cre­at­ing syn­er­gies, it has in­stead bred con­fu­sion — from the prime min­is­ter on down — about the sep­a­rate roles of at­tor­ney gen­eral and min­is­ter of jus­tice.

The at­tor­ney gen­eral is the govern­ment’s chief lawyer, and holds re­spon­si­bil­ity for up­hold­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion and the rule of law. The role re­quires a high de­gree of in­de­pen­dence and non­par­ti­san­ship, which can make it an awk­ward fit for cabi­net, which is often seized with deeply po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions (as Jody Wil­son-Ray­bould’s ex­pe­ri­ence clearly demon­strates). The min­is­ter of jus­tice, by con­trast, has a more tra­di­tional pol­icy-mak­ing role anal­o­gous to other cabi­net min­is­ters.

Why does this mat­ter? The prime min­is­ter and his staff in­sisted that it is per­fectly nor­mal and ap­pro­pri­ate to “pro­vide in­for­ma­tion” to a cabi­net col­league to as­sist or in­flu­ence the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process. If that col­league is the min­is­ter of jus­tice, they’re ab­so­lutely right.

But when it comes to the at­tor­ney gen­eral, it’s a dif­fer­ent story. The im­por­tance of hav­ing an in­de­pen­dent jus­tice sys­tem in gen­eral and en­sur­ing non-in­ter­fer­ence in in­di­vid­ual cases specif­i­cally can­not — must not — be com­pro­mised by short­term po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions, whether it be job losses or loom­ing elec­tions.

Ob­vi­ously, when the same per­son holds both roles — ap­ply­ing laws on the one hand ver­sus de­vel­op­ing them on the other — it makes it ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for every­one in­volved to keep the lines from blur­ring. Hav­ing two sep­a­rate roles — as is the case in the United King­dom — is the sim­plest way to en­sure there is no con­fu­sion.

As for putting an end to om­nibus bills, the Lib­er­als had the right idea dur­ing the 2015 cam­paign, when they promised to put an end to what they then called the “un­demo­cratic prac­tice” of mas­sive, kitchensin­k leg­is­la­tion that had be­come a reg­u­lar fea­ture of the Harper govern­ment. To be clear, there is but one, and only one, ben­e­fit to om­nibus bills: ef­fi­ciency. They al­low government­s to pass more laws quickly.

But the draw­backs are se­ri­ous. Mas­sive bills un­der­mine the over­sight func­tion of Par­lia­ment, in­clud­ing par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tees. How many MPs can read, never mind prop­erly digest, a 500-page piece of leg­is­la­tion that in­cludes dozens of dif­fer­ent, un­re­lated pro­vi­sions?

In the lead-up to the bud­get bill in 2018 that in­tro­duced the pos­si­bil­ity of re­me­di­a­tion agree­ments in­stead of pros­e­cu­tions for companies ac­cused of cor­rup­tion, op­po­si­tion mem­bers of the fi­nance com­mit­tee had even asked for the re­me­di­a­tion pro­vi­sions to be split off and stud­ied sep­a­rately. The Lib­eral ma­jor­ity voted them down. And why were those pro­vi­sions even in the bud­get bill in the first place? Be­cause SNC-Lavalin sug­gested it.

The Trudeau govern­ment de­serves to be judged for its con­duct in the SNC-Lavalin scan­dal, but pun­ish­ing it will not fix the sys­tem that al­lowed it to de­velop in the first place. Real ac­count­abil­ity re­forms — such as split­ting the roles of the at­tor­ney gen­eral and jus­tice min­is­ter, and ban­ning om­nibus bills — will.

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