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lawrence martin

What sort of punishment should be handed out to a cabinet minister who, judging by an auditor-general's report, was found in clear breach of federal policies on accountability?

Should he be shuffled to another post? Should he be dropped from cabinet entirely? Or should he, as appears to be the case with Treasury Board President Tony Clement, be allowed to remain in his post, a post wherein he stands watch over the very type of transgressions of which he is accused.

The Clement affair serves as a good test case of the governing morality. With Jack Layton's death, there is renewed focus on the question of leadership integrity. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is sending signals these days about being more magnanimous and inclusive, his giving Mr. Layton a state funeral being a noble gesture.

As the steward of public spending, Mr. Clement is the minister charged with cutting excessive expenditures in order to curb the deficit. His ministry is also responsible for enhancing ethics and accountability in government.

Logic might suggest someone who is above reproach is best suited for the role, but what we have learned from the A-G and from journalistic inquiry suggests Tony Clement is not that person.

To refresh the memory, he operated a $50-million government program that was sold to Parliament as an infrastructure fund to reduce border congestion but instead was used as a treasure chest to pretty up his riding with parks, walkways, gazebos, etc. Safe to say that the array of projects, part of the G8 Legacy Infrastructure Fund, didn't diminish Mr. Clement's electoral prospects. Funds to improve the G8 summit site in Huntsville, Ont., were well within reason, but the lucre was spread far beyond the Muskokan municipality.

Then-auditor-general Sheila Fraser took major exception to what transpired, noting that, strangely enough, Mr. Clement left no paper trail. Normally federal bureaucrats administer grant programs to ensure fairness. Some bureaucrats, along with Mr. Clement, were apparently involved in running the operation, but for reasons unknown, this information was not shared with the auditor-general. Deputy ministers owe the public an explanation, but none has been offered thus far.

Opposition critics, meanwhile, smell scandal – a cover-up of a $50-million pork-barrelling operation. In the late 1990s, when the Liberals ran grant programs like the Transitional Jobs Fund without leaving much of a paper trail, outraged conservatives railed at the Chrétien government for almost two years running.

The Clement revelations first appeared during the election campaign and it was after it that Mr. Harper gave the then-Industry minister the new Treasury responsibilities. The odd observer noted that this was insulting but, as an indication of how standards have fallen, not much was said.

When the Commons resumed, opposition critics as well as citizens who follow these things wanted answers. But as happens with many ministers in this government who are under the gun, Mr. Clement was not allowed to give them. The accountability guy was gagged. John Baird stood in his place and provided evasive responses. He explained that all the money was accounted for, which wasn't the issue. He acknowledged that the government would address some of the findings by the auditors so that the problems with the legacy fund wouldn't reoccur.

Auditors are a plague on governments. The Conservatives, interestingly enough, recently announced they are eliminating 92 auditing positions as part of public service cutbacks. Interesting, as well, is that the Prime Minister's Office has quietly changed the definition of ministerial accountability, modifying it to make ministers less responsible for what goes on in their departments.

On the Clement case, team Harper's strategy appears to be to simply ride out the criticism. Stonewall the media and the opposition until fatigue with the issue has set in and everyone moves on. It has worked in the past. It will likely work now.

The ethical course for the Conservatives is to discipline the minister. If they don't, they are sending a different signal entirely, one that shows no respect for the taxpayers who put up the $50-million.

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