Shift powers to restore trust in government: Gomery

Canada's government should take power away from cabinet ministers and their political staff and beef up the ability of MPs and civil servants to keep Ottawa clean, the commission of inquiry headed by Justice John Gomery recommended Wednesday.

The federal government should take power away from cabinet ministers and their political staff, and beef up the ability of MPs and civil servants to keep Ottawa clean, the Gomery commission recommended Wednesday.

Justice John Gomery's second and last report into the sponsorship scandal is a set of four volumes called Restoring Accountability. It serves as a road map for future governments to ensure public money is spent wisely and whistles are blown if something goes wrong.

"It is tempting to conclude that the doctrine of ministerial responsibility has become a process of mutual deniability," says the report, commissioned to avoid a repeat of the mid-1990s scandal.

"Parliament's capacity to exercise its traditional roles of watchdog of the public purse and guardian of the public interest will have to be reinforced."

At a news conference in Ottawa, Gomery added: "During the consultations we held as part of the preparation for this second report, I was asked by someone, 'Where were the parliamentarians?' And I thought that was a very revealing question."

He called the federal sponsorship program scandal an "aberration," noting that most civil servants are dedicated and honest. But he said the most disturbing part of the scandal was its political direction.

"The most troubling facts were that this aberration originated in the Prime Minister's Office ... and was allowed to continue so long despite internal audit reports, investigations, warnings and complaints by public servants involved."

The report, presented after a 18 months of hearings and research, contains 18 detailed recommendations and several other suggestions for how the workings of the government could be improved.

Among the recommendations:

  • Parliamentary committees, made up of backbench MPs, should get "substantially increase[d] funding" to let them research issues as they carry out their watchdog function.
  • Deputy ministers should be made accountable for wrongdoing within their departments, unless they have filed written objections to a proposed course of action that the Office of the Auditor General can examine.
  • Deputy ministers and other senior public servants should be hired through an open and competitive process, and given greater job security, including minimum terms of office, to guard them from the threat of retribution.
  • Political staff working in cabinet ministers' offices should be prevented from giving orders to civil servants, and banned from getting public service jobs without going through formal hiring competitions when they leave political life – when their boss is defeated in an election, for example.
  • All civil servants should be required by law to document decisions and recommendations, and banned from destroying such documentation.
  • The CEOs of Crown corporations should no longer be political appointments, but should be hired, evaluated and, if necessary, dismissed by the agency's board of directors.
  • Any "special reserves" of federal money should be managed by departments with financial administration expertise, and detailed in a report to the House of Commons once a year.
Gomery's report also asks that the government tell Parliament within 24 months how it has responded to the recommendations.

More than 4,100 citizens wrote in

Leading up to this stage of the commission's work, 4,106 Canadians filled out an online questionnaire about how to make government more accountable.

"Perhaps the most widespread feeling among Canadians is that those who break the rules are not punished, but they should be," the report said.

"The simple message many Canadians are sending is that politicians should not see themselves as above the law."

Gomery's report calls reforms introduced in the dying months of the Paul Martin government to increase accountability "generally desirable," but adds that "more needs to be done."

The decision on which of Gomery's recommendations will have the possibility of being translated into policy or legislation will rest with the minority government of Stephen Harper.

The Conservative leader takes over as prime minister on Monday.

In a separate news conference on Wednesday, Harper praised the Gomery report but didn't commit himself to implementing all of its recommendations.

It was Martin who appointed Gomery to conduct a full-scale inquiry into the sponsorship affair – a decision some link to the Liberal leader's downfall.

The sponsorship program, now defunct, was designed to raise the federal government's profile in the wake of the 1995 sovereignty referendum in Quebec. Over its life, Liberal-friendly ad firms in that province took in millions of taxpayers' dollars.

Some of the money ended up in the pockets of high-ranking Liberal organizers in Quebec, allowing the opposition to paint the government of former prime minister Jean Chrétien as corrupt.

Less than a month after Gomery released his first report on what went wrong with the sponsorship program, Martin's government was toppled by a combined vote of the three opposition parties.

On the night of the Jan. 23 election, Martin announced he would step down as Liberal leader to give the party an opportunity to rebuild before the next election.

Gomery declines to speculate on his inquiry's political fallout

At the news conference on Wednesday, Gomery would not be drawn into speculation on how the high profile of his inquiry might have changed the course of Canadian political history.

Asked directly if he felt the sponsorship scandal pushed the Liberal party out of power when Canadians voted in the Jan. 23 election, he said, "I have no way of knowing what went through their minds" in the privacy of the ballot box.

As for himself, he said his idealism took a hit as he listened to months of testimony at the inquiry, which outgoing Prime Minister Paul Martin announced in early 2004.

"I was disgusted by it, as were many people," Gomery said of the revelations that millions of dollars from federal grants was redirected into the hands of Liberal supporters and organizers in Quebec. "I did lose my innocence."