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New Accountability Act toughens rules, disqualifies Shapiro

[PoliticsWatch Updated 6:45 p.m. April 11, 2006]

OTTAWA  — The Conservative government kept its first major election promise on Tuesday when Treasury Board President John Baird tabled the Federal Accountability Act in the House of Commons.  

The wide-ranging Act is over 300 pages in length and includes amendments to over 60 pieces of existing federal laws. 

It also includes changes to the job description of the Office of the Ethics Commissioner that would result in the dismissal of the current ethics commissioner, Bernard Shapiro.

The Conservatives, NDP and the public interest group Democracy Watch have all raised questions about Shapiro's performance in the past. 

Under the new legislation, the Tories will require that the new Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner have a judicial or quasi-judicial background. 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the change was made in the job description to include judicial training or experience because the current code of conduct for MPs and ministers will be enshrined into law. 

"That's not an uncommon practice with conflict of interest and ethics commissioners," Harper said. 

In fact, one of Democracy Watch's complaints about Shapiro, a former university president, was his lack of legal or ethics experience. 

Baird noted his experience in provincial government in dealing with ethics watchdogs with judicial experience. 

"I think one of the things that I obtained from my experience in Ontario was that when you had Mr. Justice the Honourable before the name of the commissioner, it gave a lot of weight to their findings and their capacity to do an outstanding job on ethics."

In an interview with PoliticsWatch, Duff Conacher, coordinator of Democracy Watch, applauded the Conservatives' move to get someone with a judicial background in the role of ethics commissioner.

He said the same qualifications should apply for the public service integrity commissioner and the federal registrar of lobbyists. 

"The Conservatives' way of getting the ethics commissioner is a backdoor way," said Conacher.

He says the government should still introduce a motion of non-confidence in Shapiro. 

"The sooner we get rid of this ethics commissioner the sooner we'll be toward proper ethics enforcement."

Liberal MP Stephen Owen said the Tories are showing "disrespect" to Shapiro, who his an officer of the House.

"It seems to be a back route to eliminate his position," he said. 

Owen said there are a range of auditor generals and ethics commissioners at the federal and provincial level across the country who do not have legal backgrounds.

"What they all should have is good judgement and the proper resources," he said. 

In introducing the Act, Harper said the measures will "change the way business is done in Ottawa forever."

"This is the promise we made to Canadians and today we are delivering on that commitment," he said. 

Baird made it clear that the new ethics package was a reaction to the Liberal sponsorship scandal. 

"I can be no clearer when I say that the days of kickback schemes and envelopes with cash are over," he said at a press conference. 

Here are the highlights from the Federal Accountability Act.

> impose a complete ban on campaign contributions by corporations, unions and organizations

> prohibit MPs from using trust funds for political purposes

> combine the functions of the Ethics Commissioner and the Senate Ethics Officer and create a new position, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

> prohibit politicians from voting on their business interests

> require lobbyists to record "prearranged communications," specifically telephone conversations and meetings with senior public office holders.

> make the registrar of lobbyists a new Commissioner of Lobbying and an independent agent of Parliament

> ban contingency fees for federal lobbyists

> establish a Parliamentary Budget Officer within the Library of Parliament to ensure truth in budgeting with Parliament.

> remove priority appointments to the public service for former ministerial staff

> creation of a procurement auditor to, among other things, handle complaints from potential suppliers

> prohibit the contracting out of verbal only reports

> make the public sector integrity commissioner an agent of Parliament

> recognize and reward public servants who expose wrongdoing by instituting a special recognition award of up to $1,000

> expand access to information to seven more Crown Corporations, including the CBC. 

> allow the auditor general to audit Aboriginal bands, with the exception of 17 self-governing First Nation bands. 

> the creation of a director of public prosecutions outside the department of justice to deal with prosecutions of offenses under federal jurisdiction. 

> eliminate blind management arrangements for public office holders

: Related Links

> Harper's Parliamentary agenda 

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