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Ottawa’s blame game hits new low with CRA tax move

Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier is "deeply disappointed" that officials in her department decided employee discounts should become taxable income. And the sad legacy of the al-Mashat affair plumbs another depth.

The name Mohammed al-Mashat is all but lost to memory. But in 1991 he was big news, because the affair bearing his name set a precedent for ministerial responsibility that we are living with today.

Mr. al-Mashat was the highly visible Iraqi ambassador to Washington during the first Gulf war. Rather than return to Iraq after that war, he sought and obtained asylum in Canada, arriving as a landed immigrant in March, 1991.

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The fact that it took mere weeks to approve his application, rather than the usual months or years, led the press and opposition politicians to wonder what quid pro quo might be involved. Was Canada doing the Central Intelligence Agency a favour by taking in a high-profile Iraqi who might have valuable intelligence? Who had approved his swift arrival? What, exactly, was going on?

Joe Clark was secretary of state for external affairs at the time of Mr. al-Mashat's arrival, and Barbara McDougall was immigration minister. Either or both should have taken responsibility for the decision to let him jump the queue. Instead, they blamed public servants for acting without their knowledge or consent.

The public servants stoutly refused to accept blame. A parliamentary committee investigated the matter, but the result left no one satisfied.

The affair was a tawdry, unseemly exercise in blame-shifting that led experts in public administration to despair for the principle of ministerial responsibility within the Canadian parliamentary system.

Before al-Mashat, there was at least a presumption that ministers were responsible for the actions of their officials, whether or not they knew about those actions. The al-Mashat affair undermined that presumption. This did not improve the quality of decision-making within the public service.

The first Stephen Harper government sought to toughen accountability, declaring in 2007 that ministers were responsible to Parliament "for their own actions and those of their department, including the actions of all officials under their management and direction, whether or not the ministers had prior knowledge."

But in 2011, the guidelines were weakened, with this addition: "Ministerial accountability to Parliament does not mean that a minister is presumed to have knowledge of every matter that occurs within his or her department or portfolio, nor that the minister is necessarily required to accept blame for every matter."

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In practice, ministers now do everything in their power to avoid accepting blame for every matter.

Wise observers reluctantly accept the erosion of ministerial responsibility as a fact of contemporary public life.

"In the parliamentary context … the government and only the government is responsible for government policy or actions," observed Rob Walsh, the former law clerk of the House of Commons, in an e-mail exchange. "The government is not allowed to duck its accountability by blaming staff. Hence the criticisms in the al-Mashat affair."

However, "in the real world of public/media discourse … I suppose the government can blame whomever, though it casts a poor light on the government's management of its departments."

But David Zussman, a former commissioner of the public service who now teaches public-service management at the universities of Victoria and Ottawa, points out that "ministers are still responsible for what happens in their department. It can't be any other way. We haven't given up that principle."

In which case, in light of Ms. Lebouthillier's repudiation of her own department, "you can legitimately ask, OK, does that mean the rules have changed, now? … If not the old principle, then what's the new one?"

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Government bureaucracies are cumbersome and risk-averse in part because bureaucrats rightly fear the consequences of wrong decisions. They know their minister will not have their backs.

Ms. Lebouthillier could have apologized, said the mistake was on her, that she was rescinding the new regulations and would consult widely before offering any future reforms. Instead, her staff said she was "deeply disappointed" in the people who work for her.

Don't expect anything innovative to come out of the Canada Revenue Agency for a very long time.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is proposing a federal tax on recreational cannabis, once it becomes legal. Premieres at a Tuesday first ministers meeting argued provinces should get most of the revenue due to expected legalization costs. The Canadian Press
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