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Charles Murray is the Ombudsman for New Brunswick

For over 50 years, institutions of ombudship have been an important part of Canada’s democracy. Across the country, there are differences in names of the office and scope of the oversight, but the core of the work remains the same: aggrieved citizens submit their complaints to an independent body, which investigates and, where appropriate, makes recommendations for how government can do better. Over the years, the benefits of this have been demonstrated repeatedly: fairer, more effective government, and greater public confidence that stems from credible oversight. In fact, the model has proven so effective that many jurisdictions have expanded it and created area-specific ombuds, such as children’s advocates and language commissioners.

Sometimes our work intervenes for an individual in very specific circumstances. At other times, we undertake systemic reviews to get to the heart of a matter. Whatever the scale of the file, all ombuds tread a careful line. We provide oversight and recommendations, but we do not supplant the role of the elected government as policy maker. Our value-added comes from an unwavering focus on fairness, and our commitment to provide evidence-based non-partisan recommendations to the government, regardless of which party or parties hold the right of final decision. Sometimes that focus places us in the role of critic, but that is not a role to be relished for its own sake, and our aim throughout is to provide practical solutions which seek to restore and reinforce public confidence in the governments elected to serve us all.

Different parties have different ideologies and, just as some governments will seek to dedicate specific resources to specific areas, others may choose to consolidate them. In this regard, Ontarians have some reasons for confidence: the team at the office of the Ontario Ombudsman has built a world-wide reputation and if properly resourced can be relied upon to discharge these new responsibilities with professionalism and integrity.

Naturally, not everyone will agree with the reforms just announced by the Ford government. This is an example of one of those matters on which most ombuds will “stay in our lane”. We respect government’s right to make these sort of decisions. Our job is to ensure that the work does not suffer, and to maintain and look for ways to enhance the protection of the citizenry.

One matter which I note with some distress is being lost in the present debate over these proposals is the introduction of a new clause in the Ombudsman Act, which allows the governing party to suspend an ombudsman if they are “of the opinion the suspension is warranted”.

This is so far from best practice as to be alarming. It is not uncommon for ombud statutes to contain provisions for removal with cause, but to contemplate the suspension of an ombudsman based on the government’s opinion takes a jackhammer to the foundation of our work.

I have some experience with what government’s opinion of me has been on those days when my duties have required me to issue reports calling it to account. To add such a Damoclesian provision to the ombudsman’s statute runs counter to the entire rationale of the office.

Throughout government, there are any number of persons who serve at the pleasure of the Crown. The ombud, in contrast, provides value precisely because of their independence. I sincerely hope that the Ontario Legislature will see fit to remove or at least qualify such a power of suspension. Bear in mind that governments typically know what we’re investigating long before a report is made public. A vague suspension of power risks suppression of precisely the sort of reports of serious wrongdoing which an ombudsman occasionally has the duty to produce.

Asking an ombudsman to take on new responsibilities while installing a trap door underneath them is not in anyone’s best interest. If the rationale is to save public funds, well and good – but undermining the independence of oversight is one of the most short-sighted and expensive decisions any legislature can make.

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