15 September 2009

The joy of accountability

Here’s a picture of a government being held accountable for its actions.

tablingofdocuments At left is a picture of  the parliamentary secretary to the government house leader in the House of Commons tabling responses to questions on the order paper put there by the opposition Liberals before the House rose for its summer break.

It could be subtitled: “How I spent my summer vacation.”

There are a few things to notice here.

First of all, there are thousands of pages of documents made public in response to questions asked by members of the national legislature.

It’s part of what they get paid to do, asking questions and it’s part of what the government gets paid to do:  answer them.

Second of all, in Ottawa they still use the time-honoured tradition of questions on the order paper.  These are inquiries into government decisions or policies that are posed in order to elicit as full and complete a response as possible.  They are done free of charge, unlike ATIPs which carry costs.

In the 1980s, the Peckford crew kept the House closed so much they essentially forced the opposition to use freedom of information laws to get what they should have obtained for free in the House.

In the Tobin era, the members of the whole House came to the conclusion they should do away with order paper questions for most things.  All in the House were more comfortable with that situation and evidently some of them needed more time to file expense claims. 

That tradition continues such that the opposition in Newfoundland and Labrador doesn’t get to use the order paper as it is supposed to be used, they get fewer sitting days in the legislature to pose the questions they might pose in the first place, and then to make it worse, they have to submit access to information requests and pay for them out of the budget which the government deliberately  keeps tight.

Talk about setting up a system that restricts the flow of information and thereby hampers accountability.  Let’s not even get into the issue of how the government answers  – or to be correct  - tires desperately not to answer simple questions, regardless of who is posing them.

But don’t worry about that.

Just look at the mound of information the government had to cough up.

Would that governments that talked a good game on accountability could actually deliver  in proportion to their self-congratulatory rhetoric.