Not another unaccountable Officer of Parliament



As the government’s new climate change accountability bill begins its parliamentary journey, NDP MP Laurel Collins is making some mischief of her own over in the Commons’ environment committee, where she is pushing a motion about making the Environment Commissioner a stand-alone independent Officer of Parliament.  While it’s a procedurally dubious move, I nevertheless cannot contain my eyerolls as MPs look to fob off yet more homework onto another unaccountable body, and call it “accountability.”  The number of these officers has proliferated as MPs abandon yet more of their own work and responsibilities, and try to find another person to act as both their cudgel and shield.

The Environment Commissioner is currently housed in the Auditor General’s office, which seems like a fairly natural home for someone whose job is to do performance audits of environmental programs.  Apparently, the current interim Commissioner is having resourcing issues, which is in part because the Auditor General’s office has been dealing with a hugely increased workload while trying to negotiate more of their own resources from government, while also needing to deal with upgrading antiquated IT systems that the current AG’s predecessor let lapse as he played along with the Harper government’s deficit reduction game, and cut his own budget voluntarily.  In the current parliament, the opposition parties have passed Supply Day motions to demand political audits of certain government programs, as well as the early emergency pandemic legislation put the work of accountability onto the AG rather than Parliament actually scrutinizing any of the spending before it went out the door – yet another abdication of their own responsibilities.  (The AG also did say that she was confident that she was going to get her requested increased resources from government, for what it’s worth).

We’ve just seen the creation of another independent officer in the Parliamentary Budget Officer, who was spun off from being attached to the Library of Parliament to his own independent office.  There were warning signs all over this particular move, and yet it went ahead because the previous Conservative government, who created the office in the first place, started to act capriciously toward it and threatening the office’s budget when they started doing the heinous act of contradicting the government’s spin.  Part of the danger of this, however, is the propensity for media darlings in the position – the first PBO was one, and the current one is as well, to the point where he has started straying dangerously outside of his mandate and seems to want to get fired with cause because of it.  He put his credibility on the line during the election by “costing” promises by simply taking certain parties’ words and just putting them on his own letterhead to give them credibility (such as the promise about “cutting corporate welfare”), and we’re seeing a growing number of reports that are either borne of partisan mischief that he isn’t refusing to undertake, or whose methodology is so dubious that it merits suspicion that the media doesn’t actually give it.

The history of independent Officers of Parliament in this country began with the best of intentions, where officers like the Auditor General and Chief Electoral Officer had specific purposes and specialist knowledge that performed functions that were not necessarily suited to MPs, either because of the possibility of partisan shenanigans (like the Chief Electoral Officer – look no further than the complete mess of 3000 different election systems in the United States, each with their own rules and procedures, and each under partisan control), or because it was a function MPs couldn’t provide.  This expanded with specialist roles like the Official Languages Commissioner, Privacy Commissioner and Information Commissioner as the complexity of government grew, but it also started to change their roles.  No longer were they organically attached to Parliament, where MPs would use their reports as tools to hold the government to account – now these officers have become detached from Parliament, and rely on their ability to mobilize public opinion to mount pressure on the government to act on their recommendation.

One reason why this happened is because MPs willingly relinquished their roles once these officers began to use the power of media to their advantage, and it became easier for MPs to simply quote the reports and then hide behind the non-partisan nature of the officer as “proof” that it wasn’t just a partisan attack.  “Even the [insert officer here] says this government is failing,” is a common line, that appeals to authority while the MPs themselves have stopped doing this kind of accountability work.  After all, why do your own homework when you have someone else to copy from?  With the creation of the PBO, MPs abandoned the work of the Estimates and let the PBO do the examination for them, and more to the point, largely abandoned any semblance of pushing the government to reform the Estimates process so that it is coherent and matches up to the budgetary cycle.  (Note that the Scott Brison led this charge for the Liberals when he was Treasury Board president, and the government has largely given up on trying to reform this in the time since Brison’s retirement, because the public service has become too entrenched in the status quo).

I’m sure that Collins’ thinking in trying to spin off yet another officer is the temptation of having yet another cudgel to hammer the government with, one more media darling who will feel free to go in front of the cameras and start straying outside of their lane and making political pronouncements, like the current PBO has been.  But because these officers are accountable to on one, and because the lure of becoming a media darling is very real and a sure thing with a media that refuses to question these officers, even when they get their work very wrong (like the Senate audit), we should be careful that we are diminishing parliament with each new officer created.  How many more officers can we create?  How much more of their work can MPs pass onto someone else?  Let’s hope we don’t have to find out. 

More from Dale Smith. @journo_dale

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