Canada

New watchdog act dismissed as 'inadequate'

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has followed through on a campaign promise to introduce a sweeping bill designed to make government more transparent and to crack down on unethical actions.

Opposition politicians tried to poke holes in the Conservative government's new federal accountability act Tuesday, suggesting it is silent on some hot-button issues.

The NDP's Peter Stoffer brought up the overnight conversion of Vancouver-area MP David Emerson. Emerson was elected as a Liberal on Jan. 23 but joined Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet as international trade minister two weeks later.

"This little blue package contains nothing about floor-crossing," Stoffer said during question period, waving a copy of the just-tabled legislation.

"People have been betrayed by their members of Parliament," he said, referring to Emerson's case and MP Belinda Stronach's defection from the Conservatives to the Liberals eight months before.

Opposition can suggest changes: Harper

Harper replied by saying the opposition parties are welcome to propose amendments to the package of reforms, though he said his party would not be in favour of a ban on floor-crossing.

For their part, the Liberals painted the act as an over-reaction to the recent scandals that cast a shadow on the whole structure of government in Canada.

"We've just heard a press conference by the prime minister suggesting that this is some kind of klepto[maniac] state that needs to be clubbed into submission," said Stephen Owen, the Liberal critic for democratic reform.

"This is simply totally unrealistic."

Bill leaves out Tory lobbyists: critics

In question period, Owen repeatedly referred to the bill as the "selective accountability act."

While it bans former cabinet ministers and their staff from being registered as lobbyists for a five-year "cooling-off" period after they leave office, the legislation doesn't apply to former Conservative aides and defeated MPs who have become lobbyists in the weeks after Harper's party formed a minority government.

They are already lobbying their former colleagues, who are now in positions of power, Liberal MPs said.

"Dozens of Conservative ex-staff members have influence with cabinet ministers and even the prime minister," said Owen.

"That's a revolving door that would make the trade minister's head spin," Brian Murphy, the MP for Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe charged.

Defence minister comes under fire

Acting Liberal Leader Bill Graham pointed out that Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor was until recently a lobbyist, and now has his former co-workers lobbying him for lucrative defence contracts.

For that reason, Graham called the accountability act "totally and utterly inadequate."

In response, Harper challenged the Liberals to introduce an amendment that would make the five-year cooling-off period mandatory for all MPs and their staff, not just those at the cabinet level.

Such a move would restrict more Liberals than Conservatives, at least in the near future. Canadian voters elected 32 fewer Liberal MPs in the January election, but sent 25 more Conservative MPs to Ottawa.