Pulling apart Pallister’s ‘open government’

Bold words on transparency, accountability get tempered when parties are in power

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In January, then-Opposition leader Brian Pallister released a document titled the Open Government Initiative, containing 18 proposed initiatives the Progressive Conservatives claimed would make Manitoba a leader in the country in terms of the high ethical standards demanded of both elected politicians and appointed civil servants.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/05/2016 (2446 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In January, then-Opposition leader Brian Pallister released a document titled the Open Government Initiative, containing 18 proposed initiatives the Progressive Conservatives claimed would make Manitoba a leader in the country in terms of the high ethical standards demanded of both elected politicians and appointed civil servants.

At the time, the document occasioned little commentary, perhaps reflecting pessimism within the media and among the public that the promised reforms would ever be implemented. History suggests parties strongly favour reforms in opposition but lose their enthusiasm once they control the levers of power.

It’s time to examine what the PCs promised and what reforms might have been omitted. The analysis is necessarily selective and brief; hopefully, it will stimulate wider discussion.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Brian Pallister walks in his new government for the official swearing-in of the 41st legislature May 11.

The first initiative promises to strengthen Manitoba’s conflict-of-interest rules for MLAs meant to ensure politicians do not put their private interests ahead of serving the public interest. Manitoba has probably the weakest conflict rules in the country. MLAs are required to file statements and to meet with a commissioner annually, but complaints about real or perceived conflicts have to be filed with the courts. The Tories promised to grant the commissioner the authority to receive and to investigate complaints and to recommend remedies to deal with breaches of the rules. If taken, these would be good first steps to bring Manitoba into line with other jurisdictions.

A second initiative would involve drawing a line, almost always blurred, between advertising for government purposes and propaganda for partisan purposes. Following the example of several other provinces, the PCs proposed to have the auditor general review all government advertising to ensure it was non-partisan in content. Criteria and procedures for such reviews would have to be developed, but lessons can be learned from other provinces.

The Conservatives also promised to eliminate the per-vote annual allowance paid to all registered political parties.

I served as the first party allowance commissioner with the task, not to decide whether there should be an annual allowance program, but only its design. The program permits allowance money to be spent only on administrative activities, not for partisan activities such as polling and advertising. My design also provided a rationale for modest allowance payments to smaller parties to enable a more level playing field.

Having attacked allowances as a “vote tax” and refused the money, the Conservatives can claim a mandate to eliminate the program. (Manitobans should know, however, there are much richer streams of public money flowing to the main parties.)

The third area of reform involves elections. First, it is proposed that byelections would have to be called within six months of a vacancy (rather than a year) so a constituency is not without an MLA in the legislature for too long. Second, to remove the prerogative of the premier to decide the length of election campaigns, it is proposed to establish in law a fixed start date for fixed-date elections. This would remove the tactical advantage a party might exploit from having a short or long campaign period. It would also make clear when election-spending rules come into effect.

A further reform would strengthen the role of the elections commissioner who investigates complaints about violations of election laws. Currently, the commissioner can only report after an election is over, so bad publicity is not much of a deterrent. It is proposed to provide the commissioner with more meaningful sanctions.

A final area of reform involves the development of procedures and a related culture of open government through an open-data policy of pro-active, online disclosure of information. This is different from the reactive, complaint-based procedures under the Freedom of Information Act. Denials, long delays, and blacked-out document sections are among the problems involved with the current information law and practices within government. The ombudsman, who monitors the operation of the law, will have to play a key role in moving toward more open government.

The Pallister proposals would improve the policy framework for ensuring integrity in government. There are other reforms that need to be considered: the release of the mandate letters provided by the premier to his new ministers; strengthening Manitoba’s minimalist approach to lobbying regulation; adopting a code of conduct for ministerial staff; fully implementing the recent changes to the whistleblower-protection law; and making the guide to values and ethics for civil servants more of a living document.

Promoting “right-doing” is as important as preventing and dealing with wrongdoing.

Paul Thomas is professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

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