Friday, February 10, 2006

brison blasts harper

Accountability means being in the House

Scott Brison
National Post

Friday, February 10, 2006

There has been justifiable disbelief and outrage at the news that an unelected Conservative organizer, Michael Fortier, has been parachuted into Cabinet as Minister of Public Works and Government Services via a patronage appointment to the Senate.

Canadians across the country have questioned Prime Minister Stephen Harper for abandoning his top campaign pledge of accountability on Day 1 in office. They have a right to be puzzled about how a man who had lobbied for an elected Senate since his days in the Reform party could jettison his principles to reward the co-chair of his leadership campaign in 2004 and his election campaign in 2006.

Let me quote from Mr. Harper's campaign platform launch of Jan. 13, 2006: "Our system itself must have integrity. A system with democratic integrity is one in which those who sit in the Parliament of Canada, including senators, are elected."

When Mr. Harper moved a motion to bring down the government on Nov. 24, 2005, he called the Liberals "corrupt" and "arrogant" for compensating the "good and loyal services" of friends with Senate seats. Of course, that was all before he became prime minister.

I am not questioning the capabilities of Mr. Fortier, nor his desire to serve his country. However, I am deeply concerned that a senator has been given the portfolio of Public Works -- a ministry that disburses vast amounts of public money -- when he will not be able to account for that spending in the House of Commons.

Public Works is a pivotal department that pays out approximately $14-billion annually on roughly 60,000 contracts for goods and services. As the contracting arm for the entire government, it is often the focus of scrutiny about transparency and accountability, as it was during the recent Gomery commission.

It's simply unacceptable to have a complex department responsible for spending hard-earned taxpayers' money being run by a minister who is unaccountable to the House of Commons -- the guardian of the public purse. Ministers given spending power and administrative authority by the executive branch must be answerable to Members of Parliament.

Public Works has been the focus of a great deal of parliamentary scrutiny in recent years. During my tenure as Minister, I answered more than 1,000 questions -- far more than anyone else in cabinet. I could not have done that from the Senate Chamber.

Mr. Harper handed out the guidelines for ministers, a document entitled Accountable Government, to the new Cabinet this past week. It states that "the Prime Minister expects ministers to place a very high priority on their House duties," and names daily attendance at Question Period as the number one expectation. Yet as a senator, Mr. Fortier will not even be able to enter the floor of the House.

Certainly, there are precedents for a prime minister turning to the Senate after the governing party was shut out of a region. But in this case, Mr. Harper had duly elected MPs from Quebec. Moreover, Mr. Fortier's appointment also raises questions about why Mr. Harper has ignored the lack of elected representatives for the city of Toronto or for the province of Prince Edward Island.

Recent precedents for appointing ministers from outside Parliament illustrates the constitutional convention that they must be able to answer for their departments in the House as soon after their appointments as possible. In 1996, then-prime minister Jean Chretien named Stephane Dion and Pierre Pettigrew to bolster his Cabinet representation from Quebec. Both immediately ran in by-elections, and were seated in the House within weeks of their appointments to the Cabinet. Yet Mr. Fortier insists he didn't want to run in the last election, and has no intention of running for a seat until the next general election -- which could be years away. From my perspective, if you want to be a Cabinet minister, you must run for office.

Stephen Harper has talked about "improving Canadian faith in public institutions," but he is now showing contempt for the House of Commons by naming an unelected and unaccountable friend to his cabinet. Canadians have the right to feel betrayed. Mr. Harper has rapidly abandoned the high ground on accountability and become a diminished politician who preaches one thing and practices another.

Scott Brison is the MP for Kings-Hants, N.S., and the former minister of public works.


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