Friday, May 02, 2008

A fight the Conservatives cannot win

The Conservatives must be out of their minds thinking they can pull a fast one on the Auditor General. They're trying to presumptively put new policies in place that affect independent officers of parliament, including the controversial one which would see the Privy Council Office vetting communications by these officers. The Conservatives want to get the rules in place, then have the officers argue, on a "case by case basis" for exemptions as issues arise. The Auditor General is saying no way to this little trick.

Here's Vic Toews' defence of the Conservative approach, in a letter he released yesterday:
In response, Treasury Board President Vic Toews released a seven-week-old letter Thursday that states his desire to "preserve and strengthen the independence needed by agents of Parliament. ..."

Toews defended the general application of new Treasury Board rules to all government institutions, but conceded that not all rules can be applied "in exactly the same manner" to everyone.

"I believe the best approach to this issue is on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the specific institution and policy provisions in question," wrote Toews in a letter copied to all independent officers of Parliament.
And here's the smackdown from the Auditor General, Sheila Fraser, in response:
Not good enough, Fraser responded through her office Thursday.

"The auditor general's point ... stands: We want very specific clarity on specific policies and more work has to be done to ensure that that detail is there," spokesperson Sophie Nadeau said in an interview. "And it's not there right now."

Nadeau confirmed the letter was received by Fraser on March 18 but said there has been no negotiation on the issue since then.

"The policy does apply to us as it's written now," said Nadeau.
All the assurances in the world from Conservatives that the Treasury Board rules can't override an agency's independence and that they will respect the independence of these officers amounts to a hill of beans if the rules are in place and apply. We learn from this report what Fraser's specific concerns were, that she articulated back in November:
In the correspondence released by Toew's office, a letter from Fraser to Commons Speaker Peter Milliken reveals her exact concern, dating back to last November.

Quoting directly from the proposed Treasury Board communications policy, Fraser stated that all government institutions "must seek the advice of the Privy Council Office on issues and themes which may have horizontal or government-wide implications that require co-ordination."

"Clearly, this is inconsistent with our role as officers of Parliament," Fraser wrote Milliken. (emphasis added)
Fraser's been fighting this for months and getting nowhere apparently. Thus the public light coming to bear. If these new communications policies mean nothing, as Toews and Van Loan would have us believe, then why are they fighting so hard for it and taking on the Auditor General? And what else is going on behind the scenes in Ottawa to undermine independence and checks on Mr. Harper's power as PM?