Tories protect some contracts from scrutiny
Published Monday, May 19, 2008 3:45PM EDT
OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet have exempted contracts with Parliament and Canada's spy agency from oversight by a new ombudsman's post that was central to the 2006 Conservative election campaign.
The government slipped the exemptions through last week in regulations that empower the contract procurement ombudsman under the Accountability Act -- flagship legislation the government introduced as its first bill soon after taking office.
Opposition MPs were taken by surprise at the exemptions, saying they were unaware the Senate, the House of Commons and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service would be excluded from the ombudsman's statutory duty to review contracts for "fairness, openness and transparency.''
The exemptions also mean anyone who has a complaint about contracts to supply goods or services to Parliament -- including contracts with offices of MPs, senators or CSIS, will be unable to have them reviewed by the ombudsman.
NDP MP Pat Martin, who was crucial to the Conservative government's success at getting the accountability bill through the Commons, says he would not have allowed the exemptions to go through had he been aware of them at the time.
"I can't imagine any justification for exemptions or exclusions,'' he said. "We enthusiastically supported this and at no time were we made aware that there would be exemptions or exclusions from it.''
The move to keep the ombudsman out of the affairs of Parliament and the national security agency is the latest in a series of government measures and controversies the opposition says contradict the spirit of the accountability law.
The prime minister was criticized immediately upon taking office when he named the Quebec co-chair of the Conservative election campaign, Michael Fortier, to his cabinet and appointed him to the Senate where he is out of reach of opposition scrutiny through question period in the House of Commons.
As public works minister, Fortier is responsible for billions of dollars worth of contracts the government awards each year and was also responsible for steering the regulations empowering the procurement ombudsman through cabinet.
Harper's anger over the opposition's refusal to endorse his nomination of a friend and party supporter, Calgary oil baron Gwyn Morgan, as head of a new commission for federal appointments has led to the prime minister's refusal to put the commission in place to independently screen cabinet appointments to government posts.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has been under opposition attack after his former chief of staff, who went on to a government appointment, broke government tendering rules when he awarded a well-connected Tory an untendered $122,000 contract to write the 2007 budget speech.
The government has also come under fire for eliminating a database containing a massive historical list of government documents that have been released under the Access to Information Act. The data base had been widely used by academics, researchers and journalists.
The contract-oversight regulations say the ombudsman "shall not'' perform the duties and functions of his office in regard to contracts with "the Canadian Security Intelligence Service; and the staff of the Senate and the House of Commons.'' Those are the only exemptions listed in the regulations.
Liberal MP Mark Holland was also unaware of the exemptions, saying "I don't think there's any good reason for it.'' He added if CSIS contracts were excluded for security reasons, sensitive information could be examined privately.
"If the concern is privacy or security concerns, those same concerns surely would exist within the defence department,'' he said. "As for MPs and senators, that information should be available to the challenge.''
The head of a lobby group that has monitored Harper's record on his campaign promise of more accountability says all independent monitoring offices should have the power to scrutinize Parliament.
"The way to do things differently is to extend all of the accountability laws to politicians and they haven't done that with the Access to Information Act, the auditor general, whistle-blower protection or this case of procurement,'' said Democracy Watch co-ordinator Duff Conacher.
Conservative MP James Moore, the parliamentary secretary for Fortier who answers questions on his behalf in the Commons, declined to answer questions about the procurement ombudsman, referring a journalist to the Public Works Department's web site. Its page for the ombudsman contains only a telephone number and mailing address for contact.
A media officer with the public works department e-mailed a response to questions, saying the government exempted CSIS because "knowledge of their procurement could compromise their operations.''
"An exemption is also made for procurement by the Senate and the House of Commons because of the special legal status of these organizations,'' said spokesperson Lucie Brosseau.
The cabinet earlier this month appointed former assistant auditor general Shahid Minto as the procurement ombudsman for a five-year term. Minto is also a former chief risk officer for the public works department.