Failure to decentralize PMO power poses danger to democracy: Gomery

The government of Stephen Harper has failed to decentralize power in the prime minister's office, a trend that is a "danger to Canadian democracy," retired judge John Gomery said Thursday.

The government of Stephen Harper has failed to decentralize power in the prime minister's office, a trend that is a "danger to Canadian democracy," retired judge John Gomery said Thursday.

Gomery appeared in Ottawa before the Commons estimates committee to address the implementation of his recommendations into the sponsorship scandal.

Although Gomery said some of his reforms were addressed in the government's accountability legislation, "the basic problem described in the report has not been dealt with."

Gomery said that problem is "the growing imbalance between the executive side of the government represented by the prime minister and his cabinet and the legislative side represented by parliament."

Gomery said his report warned of the "greater and greater concentration" of power within the executive.

Speaking to the committee, he raised concerns about the political staff in the PMO, saying they are not elected and are not subjected to any rules or laws, yet "have the ear of the most important and powerful person in Canadian government."

"I suggest that this trend is a danger to Canadian democracy and leaves the door wide open to the kind of political interference in the day-to-day administration of government programs that led to what is commonly called the sponsorship scandal."

In his first report in November 2005 about the sponsorship scandal, Gomery concluded that millions of taxpayer dollars had been skimmed by Liberal-friendly ad agencies and some of the cash had flowed back to the party in under-the-table kickbacks.

Tories didn't acknowledge report

In a second report, Gomery recommended reversing the growing trend toward centralization of power in the hands of the prime minister and his inner circle.

But Gomery said he's never even received formal acknowledgment of the report from the Tory government.

He said he was "astonished" that he didn't get so much as a letter.

On the Accountability Act, Gomery said the Tories drafted the legislation before seeing his report. He described it as a "fine piece of legislation" that deals with many problems but not the main problem.

"Because you call a piece of legislation an accountability act, doesn't mean, in my view, that it is necessarily the right way to re-establish accountability."

Gomery also took the prime minister to task for abandoning the effort to install a new appointments commissioner to ensure that merit — not patronage — would be the main criterion in naming people to the boards of Crown corporations and other key posts.

Gomery said he was pleased the Accountability Act created such an office but "deplored the fact" that no one has yet been appointed to it.

Gomery has also slammed the Tories for not revamping the Access to Information Act to make it easier for journalists and other citizens to get documentation from the government.

"Very good reasons:" Harper

During Thursday's Question Period, New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton asked Harper whether he planned to follow Gomery's key recommendation.

"Will the Prime Minister follow Justice John Gomery and curb the personal power of the staff in his office?" he asked, citing recent problems such as the leaking of a memo from U.S. Democratic presidential nominee hopeful Barack Obama's campaign, dubbed NAFTA-gate, and the investigation into alleged political interference by PMO spokesman Dimitri Soudas.

Harper said the Conservatives campaigned on a platform of accountability in the last election, and many of their promises reflected changes desired by Gomery.

He said the other changes were rejected because the party has received "representations … urging us for very good reasons not to accept those recommendations, that they were not in the democratic interest."

The letter, which Harper noted also included signatures from NDP politicians, was sent by dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen two years ago.

Gomery has previously dismissed their arguments as "the status quo reasserting itself."

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre said the party's Accountability Act — which revamped the rules for political financing and lobbying and beefed up protection for civil service whistleblowers — has succeeded in cleaning up Ottawa.

"We promised the Accountability Act, we delivered the Accountability Act," said Poilievre. "Our promise was not to implement all of Judge Gomery's recommendations."

With files from the Canadian Press