Harper treatment of Gov. watchdog abuse of power

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As Canada’s correctional investigator or ombudsman for 11 years, Howard Sapers has been a burr under the saddle of three prime ministers. That’s the nature of independent watchdogs. They tend to embarrass the government of the day.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/05/2015 (2771 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As Canada’s correctional investigator or ombudsman for 11 years, Howard Sapers has been a burr under the saddle of three prime ministers. That’s the nature of independent watchdogs. They tend to embarrass the government of the day.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, however, has decided it’s time to eliminate the constant annoyance of being reprimanded for flaws in the federal parole and penal system. Mr. Sapers frequently challenged the government’s law-and-order agenda and exposed abuse and injustice.

The ombudsman has been particularly aggressive in the case of former Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr — whose release on bail Thursday was opposed by the government — issuing three separate reports critical of his treatment by the correctional service.

The government offered no credible explanation for informing Mr. Sapers he will be out of a job within one year, or sooner if a replacement is found. An official merely said the ombudsman had been in the job long enough, and it was time for someone new.

Mr. Sapers is just the third correctional investigator since the job was created in 1973. The first person held the job for 25 years, while the second left after four years for a better opportunity elsewhere in government.

The job is not suited to short terms and regular turnover. The work is complicated and specialized, requiring years of experience.

More important, it requires stability to reinforce the independence of the office.

Regular turnovers tend to affect behaviour, intentionally or not. An ombudsman who feels he or she is on a short leash may be less inclined to be blunt and frank. And a watchdog who is worried about job security is unlikely to be very good, or have much credibility.

A year ago, sensing his own demise, Mr. Sapers asked the government for six months’ notice if it wasn’t going to reappoint him. He was worried an abrupt change would adversely affect a smooth transition. His concerns were ignored.

Mr. Sapers is now forced to work in a state of suspense, unsure if the next phone call will be the one telling him to pack his bags and leave behind any unfinished work.

The situation, he says, is “destabilizing” and makes it difficult to continue the important work of holding the government accountable.

By removing Mr. Sapers without good reason, the prime minister has undermined the integrity of the office and fired a shot across the bow of similar arm’s-length positions.

Mr. Sapers’ replacement, of course, will be subject to additional scrutiny and uncomfortable questions about loyalty.

We have seen this kind of heavy-handed action before.

Kevin Page, Canada’s first parliamentary budget officer, was dumped in 2013 following a series of running battles with the Harper government over budget issues and economic forecasts.

That’s the way it works in a democracy — checks and balances and all that messy stuff.

As Opposition leader, Mr. Harper had proposed the creation of a parliamentary budget office and was outspoken about the need for greater transparency and accountability.

After nearly nine years in office, however, his once-vigorous commitment to open government has been replaced with excessive secrecy and a need to control every message.

Mr. Harper is entitled to his opinions, but he has no right to blatantly undermine the Office of the Correctional Investigator or other watchdogs, whose roles are fundamental to good and open government.

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