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Harper's broken accountability promises 

[PoliticsWatch Updated 6:45 p.m. February 16, 2006]

OTTAWA  —  The new Conservative government appears to have already broken some of its campaign accountability promises to close a number of loopholes and toughen up government ethics rules. 

The promises were made in their Accountability Act, which was the crowning jewel of the Conservative election campaign. But the public interest group Democracy Watch says five of the promises have already either been broken or watered down. 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on the campaign trail that introducing his Accountability Act would be his first piece of legislation tabled once elected. 

The Accountability Act proposed 52 specific changes designed to toughen up ethics in Ottawa. 

The changes covered a wide-range of areas from fundraising, lobbying, access to information and the ethics commissioner. 

Derek Burney, who led Harper's transition team, told reporters last week that all parts of the accountability package that did not require legislation were already put in place. 

Those non-legislative changes were made through alterations to the Conflict of Interest and Post-Employment Code for Public Office Holders

"Numerous revisions have been made to the code to strengthen it, including more stringent post-employment provisions," Harper says in a message at the beginning of the new code. 

"All changes are intended to ensure that the code reflects our commitments to Canadians and will complement the government's broader ethics and accountability agenda."

But Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch says there are five proposed changes to the code that were included in the Accountability Act that were either watered down or ignored when the code was changed last week.

The problems relate to proposed Conservative reforms to the role of the ethics commissioner and the five-year ban on lobbying.

Conacher said one of the Accountability Act promises has been watered down and with "the other four (Harper) broke the promise -- straight up."

While nothing would prohibit the Conservatives from making further changes to the code in the future, Conacher said he finds it "very suspicious" that the changes were not made last week. 

The Prime Minister's Office referred questions about the code to Treasury Board President John Baird, but his department said it was not responsible for the code. 

Here's a summary of the five Tory promises related to the code and how they actually appear in the code or how they were simply ignored. The word-for-word Tory platform promises are in bold.

1. Close the loopholes that allow ministers to vote on matters connected with their business interests.

The Tories promised to close these loopholes, but, according to Conacher, there is only one loophole in the code that allows this to take place.

That loophole was put in by former prime minister Paul Martin in 2003 and is a narrow definition of "private interest."

Under section 4 of the code, private interest "does not include an interest in a matter" that is of "general application" or "affects a person as one of a broad class of the public."

Essentially, that loophole could allow someone who is a major shareholder in a bank to be in cabinet and deal with bank mergers. The private interest exemption definition could be interpreted in a way that would allow the cabinet minister to deal with, say, bank mergers because he or she is dealing with a "broad class" of banks or in a "general application" not specifically with the bank where there is a private interest.

Harper did not close this loophole when he changed the code last week and the private interest definition remains unchanged.

2. Allow members of the public - not just politicians - to make complaints to the Ethics Commissioner. 

This promise sounded simple enough to implement. 

However, the changes made by Harper last week to the code said the ethics commissioner could review complaints from the public, but they have to be "brought to his attention by members of Parliament."

In essence, the change fails to eliminate political involvement in a complaint to the commissioner. And it would make every complaint in essence partisan, allowing the target of the complaint to spin an investigation by the ethics commissioner that was originally brought forward by a citizen.

In the case of the income trust controversy, an NDP MP was the first person to file a complaint to the RCMP. When the RCMP decided to investigate during the election campaign,  the Liberals tried to downplay the investigation by suggesting it was "an opposition allegation."

3. End "venetian blind" trusts that allow ministers to remain informed about their business interests, and require all ministerial assets to be placed in truly blind trusts. 

The so-called venetian blind trusts are known in the code as a "blind management agreement."

The new code still contains blind management agreements although they are more restrictive in the circumstances ministers can be informed about their interests. 

4. Make part-time or non-remunerated ministerial advisers subject to the Ethics Code.

Another promise that appears not to be included in the new code. 

In 2003, Martin introduced the loophole that would make part-timers who work less than 15 hours a week and non-paid cabinet appointees only subject to the 10 principles of the code, but not the entire ethics code.

The Tories have not only kept that loophole in place, but have actually added another loophole, according to Conacher.

Section 4 (3) (b) of the code has been expanded to the broaden the public office holders who are not subject to the entire code. 

A new paragraph added by the Conservatives allows ministers to designate part-time ministerial appointees to be subject to only the principles, but not the entire code. Part-time would include those who work more than 15 hours, but are not full time. 

In Martin's code, the loophole was only in place for people who worked less than 15 hours a week. 

5. Extend to five years the period for which ministers, ministerial staffers, and senior public servants cannot lobby government. 

The ban appears to be in place for ministers and senior public servants, but there are a number of confusing changes to language and references to ministerial designations covering ministerial staffers that Conacher says has created a loophole. 

Section 29 of the code has been changed to reflect the new five-year ban, but for ministerial staff it says "designated under Section 24." Section 24 is a more defined part of the code that offers an interpretation of what are senior public servants and public officer holders. 

Under the definition that applies to ministerial staffers, it includes a possible exemption saying they must be "designated by their minister for this part to apply."

This loophole could allow a cabinet minister to exempt a ministerial staffer from the five-year lobbying restriction by simply not designating them. But still the current one-year cooling off period for lobbyists dealing with their former departments under section 28 would still apply. 

During the transition period, a number of stories appeared in the media that suggested the Conservatives would not attract top talent to ministerial offices because of the five-year ban. 

Conacher said all these changes are not mere accidents.

"They added sections to the code," he noted. "They obviously had to consider the language of those sections in adding them." 

: Related Links

> Harper's Code for Public Office Holders
> Martin's Code for Public Office Holders

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