Doug Ford’s pre-Christmas attack on accountability
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.
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.