P.E.I. election promises: Accountability
Every party, including the one that formed the last government, is saying the way government has worked in the past isn't good enough.
In the wake of P.E.I.'s e-gaming controversy becoming a national news story, Liberal Leader Wade MacLauchlan, acting as premier before the election call, made a number of announcements on government accountability in an effort to get on top of the issue. Those included
- Improved conflict of interest rules, including those for senior civil servants.
- Increased expense reporting, not just for ministers but also deputy ministers and other senior civil servants.
- A new ethics and integrity commissioner.
With opposition parties like the NDP starting to call for a judicial inquiry to probe e-gaming and other controversial files, MacLauchlan directed the auditor general to conduct her own investigation. He also started to cut his ties with some key figures from the administration of former premier Robert Ghiz, most notably Brooke MacMillan, who as the former deputy minister of innovation had been in charge of the controversial provincial nominee program.
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These opening moves seemed to clear the way for a Liberal campaign once the writ came which has largely steered clear of issues of accountability, focusing instead on health care and job creation.
Tories focus on accountability, struggle with transparency
From day one of their campaign, the Progressive Conservatives, under new leader Rob Lantz, have focused on measures to make government more open and accountable. That includes a pledge to create an "open government" emphasizing transparency, where documents, data and information on government decision-making are more readily available to the public.
Some of the specific accountability pledges made by the Tories:
- More resources for the privacy commissioner, and an expansion of freedom-of-information laws to cover municipalities and post-secondary institutions.
- A royal commission on accountability in government, to look at e-gaming, the PNP, government lending and write-off practices,
- More resources for the auditor general so she can conduct more reviews.
- A lobbyist registry.
- Whistleblower legislation.
- New conflict of interest rules.
But at least once or twice, the Tories seem to have struggled applying their commitment to transparency to their own campaign.
For an example, consider the Star Wars video.
Last week a video spoof appeared that began as a story about how difficult it is to produce a film on P.E.I., and ended as a promotion of the Progressive Conservative plan to provide tax incentives to support local film production.
When the CBC's Krystalle Ramlakhan asked Tory Leader Rob Lantz about the video he said it wasn't his video, and his appearance was a cameo requested by the filmmakers. He said the filmmakers decided to produce the piece because they were excited about the PC's commitment to bring tax measures to promote the local film industry.
One of the filmmakers told the story differently, saying they were approached by the party to create an ad to promote the campaign promise. The next day Lantz told the CBC he had not had all the information for the initial interview; that this was in fact a Tory ad, paid for by the party.
In the meantime, P.E.I.'s Chief Electoral Officer Gary McLeod had asked the party to either take the video offline or alter it. It was his opinion the video did not have the political authorization message required to be part of all campaign advertising.
The Tories sent CBC News a screenshot of the authorization message that was on the original video, which was black text on a black background. They have since added a very clear authorization message to the YouTube page where the video is hosted.
Then there was a webpage and series of newspaper ads that appeared before the election period began, pointing to alleged misuses of public funds by the previous Liberal government. When the materials first appeared there was no indication who they were from. There was nothing wrong with that because the writ hadn't yet come and so the materials didn't fall under the Election Expenses Act. But after the writ came the ads continued as before, at least temporarily, although the web page had been modified to say that it was from the PC Party.
NDP first with demand for enquiry
The Progressive Conservatives were not the first to come forward with the idea that some kind of enquiry into past government behaviour was required.
NDP Leader Mike Redmond got the ball rolling before the election was called, with a promise to launch a judicial inquiry into a decade's worth of government misconduct, The focus has narrowed since then.
The NDP have also come up with this idea for a P.E.I. Fiscal Accountability Office, like the Parliamentary Budget Office in Ottawa, Redmond said that would strengthen oversight, reduce overspending and prevent future corruption. He described it as similar to the auditor general's office, but would look forward instead of backward.
Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker has turned his eye to campaign financing as a way to clean up P.E.I. politics. He is promising to get rid of out-of-province donations, currently allowed in the province.
He is also promising binding, fixed-date election legislation, but some question whether that is possible under the constitution.
Both the NDP and the Greens side with the Tories in calling for an expansion of Freedom of Information legislation to make more public bodies accessible through information requests, and to make more resources available to the Commissioner to handle appeals.
Freedom of information not working: Liberals
In the party platform released Wednesday, the Liberals themselves say government's approach to freedom of information isn't working, calling the process too slow, too cumbersome and too expensive. Wade MacLauchlan has pledged, like his Tory counterpart, to move to an "open data" concept, and the Liberals say they'll fix freedom of information, but they don't spell out how.
Here's an example of the system the Liberals say isn't working: in May 2014 Health Minister Doug Currie made a pledge to publish, online, inspection reports from private nursing homes. Independent MLA Olive Crane had asked for the move. Currie said it would increase transparency and accountability in facilities which receive public funding.
A year later those reports are still not available.
The CBC launched a freedom of information request asking for that very information a month later. The Department of Health has opposed the request through its deputy minister, rebuffing a petition from the CBC to waive access fees, the CBC arguing the information is in the public interest. The Department is now asking CBC News for more than $500 for the information, which the Minister of Health said he would make public without any sort of request.
The case has now been appealed to the Freedom of Information Commissioner, who is overworked and who's asked government for more resources to be able to handle cases like this in a more timely fashion. The resources have not been provided.