A Liberal platform that might impress Canadians

Posted on March 10, 2011 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors:

NationalPost.com – FullComment/Canada
March 10, 2011.   Kelly McParland

There’s a problem with the Liberals’ scheme to frame an election — if they do in fact force one — around the issue of the government’s chronically ugly behaviour. As much as the Conservatives have strayed from their 2005 campaign pledges to run a cleaner, more open, more honest and ethical government, every Tory sin has a matching Liberal one.

You have to reach back slightly farther for the Liberal transgressions, since they’ve been out of office since 2006, but you have to be pretty starry-eyed, not to mention hopelessly naive, to believe the Liberals wouldn’t quickly revert to their old practices.  So a campaign, if it happens, could rapidly deteriorate into an ugly exchange of ever-nastier accusations, met one-for-one with matching reminders of every assault on the public honour carried out by the Liberals when they had the chance. You think the attack ads have been bad so far? By voting day, Canadians could be so fed up with the muck on both sides that the next government will be led by None of the Above.

There is an antidote, though, and the Liberals might be wise to seize it. If they are going to campaign on the issue of  better-behaved government, they have to convince voters they will do things differently. And they have to be specific enough to persuade Canadians they can be trusted (against all past experience) to follow through.  That means a written, detailed, comprehensive and clear-cut outline of the policies they would introduce to open up government and entrench rights and practices that are long overdue.

For instance:

• The elimination of all barriers that block Canadians from gaining access to government information and enable politicians to impede, obstruct, deny or delay the release of records, papers and data. Just promising a more open style isn’t good enough, the Liberals need to outline the specific legislation  they would introduce to end the absurd difficulty anyone outside government circles has gaining access to public information, including creation of an independent body to collect and release data and satisfy public requests free of any government influence, with the budget to do so.

• No more secrecy around MPs’ own budgets and spending. The Liberals love pointing fingers at Conservative secrecy whole defending their own role in actively supporting the Board of Internal Economy, the self-serving, uncommunicative, hush-hush all-party cabal of  MPs that oversees Parliamentary budgets and ensures no one ever gets a peak at anything but the most innocuous details. Members of Parliament get over $500 million a year to spend on themselves, and provide only the barest idea of where it all goes. If Liberals want to be taken seriously they should pledge that every cent spent in MP budgets is easily accessible online without delay or obstruction.

• A plan for the establishment of MP committees with real power and the ability to force witnesses to appear and answer questions. Every opposition party complains about the unworkable, time-wasting committee system and pledges to do better, but reneges the moment it gets into office. The committee system is one of the most potent means by which the U.S. Congress holds presidential feet to the fire; it can be done here too and would be a valuable tool in eliminating the increasing hording of power within the PMO. Again, its power must be free of potential for government interference and provided with guarantees to ensure its independence can be enforced.

• A strict new code of behaviour for Question Period with enforceable penalties for violation. It may be impossible to force government ministers to provide honest answers to questions, but there is no reason they can’t be required to show a degree of courtesy and respect for one another, and for the institution, that is absent today. MP Michael Chong put forward a plan for greater decorum, but it has made little headway, suggesting MPs aren’t really that interested in improving their behaviour, despite what they might claim.

If the Liberals want us to believe they’d be different from the Tories,  they have to prove it. They have to put it in writing, in detail, free of weasel words and wriggle room, and ask for a specific mandate to put it into effect. That would be impressive. And difficult for the Tories to counter.

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