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Canada's International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda waits to testify before the Commons Procedure and House Affairs committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 18, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Canada's International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda waits to testify before the Commons Procedure and House Affairs committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 18, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Globe Editorial

Three hand-written 'nots' don't make a right Add to ...

The propensity for outrage in Ottawa is so great that real outrages sometimes escape the notice they deserve. Take the events on Parliament Hill this week. The referral of the conduct of two Conservative staffers to the RCMP is an extremely serious matter. But at the same time, the federal government is making outright admissions of managerial incompetence.

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Consider a Commons committee investigation into whether Bev Oda, the Minister of International Co-operation, misled the House last year about the refusal to fund the aid organization Kairos, the decision that led to the notorious insertion of "not" into a key document.

In the midst of the pre-election intrigue around contempt of Parliament, there has been a startling revelation: such alteration of documents was no mere exception, but routine practice. "My former Chief of Staff, Stephanie Machel, told me she inserted the word 'not' following the normal practice, at that time," said Ms. Oda. The production of two hitherto undisclosed memos with the same "not" assertions were apparently supposed to assuage opposition MPs.

That Ministers have the prerogative to make funding decisions in their departments is not in dispute. But is this any way to run a department? Couldn't new forms be printed with a "Do Not Fund" box to avoid confusion? Instead, we have government by handwritten insertion. With such improvisation, poor decision-making is sure to follow, and the potential for abuse is high.

And that is evident when you combine Ms. Oda's testimony with that of Margaret Biggs, the president of the Canadian International Development Agency (effectively, Ms. Oda's deputy minister). It is now clear that the Ms. Biggs had signed off on a "Yes" decision to fund Kairos before the "Not" was inserted.

Such a high-level disagreement puts further strain on the relationship between politicians and process-oriented public officials. The Auditor-General should look at the decision-making process at CIDA, and other departments that operate on the fly in this manner should disclose their practices.

The opposition, meanwhile, is trying to fan some bad smells. The allegations against former political staffers Bruce Carson and Sebastien Togneri are troubling, but unproven.

Whether or not an election is imminent, the federal government will be judged on its competence, as well as its ethics.

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