Following up on yesterday's post: Freedom of Speech in Canada I found this article in today's Toronto Star. The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) is the nerve centre of the Canadian Government. Attempts by the Conservative government have consistently revolved around command and control of what information is released to the press and public.
Auditor General Sheila Fraser has long been an outspoken advocate of increased accountability within the government at both the fiscal and policy level. Attempts made to broach the Auditor General's Independence , an agency that exists specifically to maintain integrity within government spending practices are disturbing at best.
Auditor balks at vetting by PMO
TOM HANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Prime Minister Stephen Harper chats with a member of his Tory caucus after their meeting in Ottawa on April 30, 2008, which was also Harper's 49th birthday. Independent watchdog will not abide by rule to run public statements by officials, Fraser says
OTTAWA–Ottawa's financial watchdog says she won't go along with draft government rules that she says would undermine the independence of officers of Parliament like herself.
Auditor-General Sheila Fraser found allies yesterday who condemned the Conservative proposal, which could mean that Parliament's officers must vet their public statements through a wing of the Prime Minister's Office, as an unprecedented attack on the independence of the officers, who are supposed to work at arm's length.
The draft proposal would lump in Fraser, along with other officers of Parliament such as the head of Elections Canada, and the privacy, information and ethics commissioners with all other government departments and demand they get high-level approval before speaking out.
"It's absolutely unacceptable and it's an attack on the independence of officers of Parliament," NDP MP David Christopherson (Hamilton Centre) said yesterday. "This will be resolved. It's just a matter of how much dust do we have to kick up and how far do we have to drag the Prime Minister kicking and screaming to acknowledge that there are people in this country that he doesn't control."
Fraser said yesterday that the independent officers have been inadvertently ensnarled in a policy aimed at government bureaucrats and was optimistic that a resolution would be found. But the outspoken auditor also made clear she wouldn't co-operate anyway with the proposed edict. "I do not believe there is any kind of ... ill will towards officers of Parliament," she said in an interview.
"When they issue these policies, to be quite frank, they don't consider officers of Parliament. We're six relatively small agencies," Fraser said.
The draft communications plan would demand that communications "products" be vetted by the Privy Council Office, which is the bureaucratic wing of the Prime Minister's Office, and other high-level government officials. "I truly believe that the government itself recognizes that would be inappropriate," Fraser said. Fraser revealed the existence of the proposed policy Tuesday when she appeared before the Commons public accounts committee to discuss her office's operations.
"Recently, for example, there's a draft communication policy going around that would have all communication strategies, all communications, everything, go through Privy Council Office," Fraser told MPs. "Well, I can tell you there is no way that my press releases about my report are going to go to Privy Council Office or our communications strategies are going to be vetted by Privy Council Office."
Fraser and the other officers have struck a working group to get clarification on this and other federal policies on issues like audits, travel and advertising they say infringes on their independence. But it's the proposed communications plan that has provoked concern among the agencies.
"We don't want this to apply to us," said Robin Cantin, spokesperson for the commissioner of official languages, Graham Fraser. "Our concerns stand." Treasury Board officials claim it's a misunderstanding as they try to "simplify" the government's communications policies. And they insist that the statutory independence of these agencies would trump any new guidelines.
"I can assure you that we respect the independence of the officers of Parliament and this government would not do anything inconsistent with the independent role of those officers," Treasury Board President Vic Toews told the Commons yesterday.
In March, he sent a letter to officers of Parliament saying that he accepts that not all Treasury Board policies can be applied to the independent agencies. He said disputes would be handled on a "case-by-case" basis. His spokesperson, Mike Storeshaw, said that the new communications policy "will respect and maintain the independence of agents of Parliament like the (auditor-general), as they always have."
The department refused to release a copy of the draft communications plan.