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Canada's Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson waits to testify before the Commons ethics committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa October 26, 2010. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Canada's Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson waits to testify before the Commons ethics committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa October 26, 2010. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Tory-appointed watchdogs reluctant to probe wrongdoing, critics charge Add to ...

The three independent federal watchdogs created by the Conservative government operate largely behind the closed doors of their own offices and, after one was exposed this fall for having done little in three years, critics are asking questions about the effectiveness of the other two.

The case of Integrity Commissioner Christiane Ouimet, who investigated just seven of the 228 complaints from public-service whistleblowers she received during her tenure, left many in Parliament questioning how the problems in that office had gone unnoticed.

And the Integrity Commissioner is not the only Officer of Parliament who is accused of lacking teeth.

"They don't bark, they don't bite and they don't hunt," Liberal MP Shawn Murphy, who chairs the Commons Ethics committee, said in an interview. "If they don't bite, it doesn't matter if they have teeth or not."

Karen Shepherd, who was hired to ensure that politicians are not being unduly influenced by their well-connected friends, has never found anyone guilty of breaking the rules in the year and a half that she has been Commissioner of Lobbying.

And, in more than three years as Ethics Commissioner, Mary Dawson has discovered just one person, a Liberal MP, to have violated the Conflict of Interest Code. At the same time, she has absolved cabinet ministers, Conservative staff, a Conservative MP and the government itself of myriad alleged indiscretions.

"If they don't want to find fault, if they want to remain on good terms with deputy ministers in the town, perhaps expecting another appointment or something, well, they can just slow [it]down and there is nobody to say, 'What are you doing?'" said Donald Savoie, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the Université de Moncton.

"I think trying to hold Officers of Parliament accountable is like trying to grab smoke."

There are eight people who carry the title Officer of Parliament - agents appointed to carry out the work of Parliament but to act independently from the government of the day. Even critics say most of them are doing good work.

But the three offices created by the Conservatives after they came to power on the heels of the Liberal sponsorship scandal have been decidedly quiet.

"They have way too much choice in how they do their job and can essentially choose not to do their job," said Duff Conacher, co-ordinator of Democracy Watch, a citizens group that advocates for democratic reform.

Ms. Ouimet, whose inaction went undetected by MPs, dutifully filed annual reports.

But Mr. Conacher said those reports, like the reports of the other Officers of Parliament, made no mention of the number and date of the complaints that were received and the action taken in response. Those numbers, he said, "would have rung a lot of alarm bells."

The Conservative government said Monday it introduced the Federal Accountability Act to instill confidence that public officials are acting in the interests of Canadians.

"We continuously take steps to ensure that independent Officers of Parliament have the tools, the rules and the independence to work effectively on behalf of Canadians," said Jay Denney, a spokesman for Treasury Board President Stockwell Day.

"The opposition should not be criticizing Officers of Parliament they themselves approved. Instead, they should work with the government in order to ensure openness, transparency and accountability instead of being critical of these fundamental Canadian values."

Mr. Conacher laments the fact that the Integrity Commissioner, the Ethics Commissioner and the Lobbying Commissioner do not do random audits.

René Leblanc, the deputy lobbying commissioner, said in an interview: "We don't really work on that basis."

Even though Ms. Shepherd has never announced the result of an investigation, she has promised that some will be concluded early in the new year, said Mr. Leblanc.

Democracy Watch is still waiting for rulings from Ms. Shepherd on complaints that were filed as far back as 2001, seven years before her office inherited them from the former Office of the Registrar of Lobbyists.

Mr. Leblanc said there are "all kinds of reasons" for the delays, including the availability of witnesses. And "we've had our caseload, our investigations, put on a shelf for a while when one case went to court ..."

All Officers of Parliament have to cope with restrictions that the legislation governing them places on their office.

Ms. Shepherd, for instance, must hand over any cases that may involve criminal violations of the Lobbying Act to the RCMP.

"But I can tell you right now the RCMP isn't interested in those kinds of offences and, even if they were, it would have to go to a Crown prosecutor and I can tell you [Crown prosecutors]are not interested," said the Liberals' Mr. Murphy.

The only Officer of Parliament who can penalize those who cross the line is the Ethics Commissioner - and only in the case of someone has been late in providing her with information. She cannot sanction someone for ethical violations.

Ms. Dawson said she would not be opposed to having the power to hand out fines to wrongdoers. However, she does not believe she needs that power to do her job properly.

"People are always looking for politicians to get into trouble. And they are their own worst enemies sometimes with the way they behave in the House of Commons," she said. "But, by the same token, these guys, generally, have the public interest at heart, I believe. They wouldn't be in it if they didn't have a streak of altruism."

The Ethics Commissioner said she believes the strength of her reports is in what they uncover. "I feel that the most important thing that I do in my investigation reports is expose the fact," said Ms. Dawson. "I think transparency is the key role in my office."

She said she does not see the need to conduct audits. Nor does she believe it is necessary to report all of the complaints that come in to her office. Many are unfounded and many are just political football, she said.

If Ms. Dawson sees a flaw in the ethics legislation, it's that it doesn't distinguish between the people who fall under it. Cabinet ministers are treated the same as their staffers.

"In many, many cases, I don't have discretion to moderate the rules," said Ms. Dawson, adding that she realized that any request to ease requirements for people far down the chain of command would not address the criticism "that I'm not out for blood or I'm not draconian enough."

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