A blog to give a voice to our concern about the continued erosion of our democratic processes not only within the House of Commons and within our electoral system but also throughout our society. Here you will find articles about the current problems within our parliamentary democracy, about actions both good and bad by our elected representatives, about possible solutions, opinions and debate about the state of democracy in Canada, and about our roles/responsibilities as democratic citizens. We invite your thoughtful and polite comments upon our posts and ask those who wish to post longer articles or share ideas on this subject to submit them for inclusion as a guest post.
Contact us at democracyunderfire@gmail.com

Friday, March 27, 2009

Democracy and Accountability

Can we have one without the other? I would say NO, for without accountability the democratic process as is should be practiced within the HoC will, some say has, degenerate into something more resembling an oligarchy. If governments cannot be held accountable, and they cannot if their actions are not open to scrutiny, and there are not consequences for undemocratic or dictatorial decisions, the old adage “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” becomes all too true.

What then are the mechanisms in place to ensure accountability? Very few it would seem, and those that are in place are constantly being eroded, blocked and ignored.

My blogger colleague recently posted a piece about the influence that “Big Business” has upon our governments decisions, perhaps the best example of this are the “Trade Agreements” and “Partnerships” known as NAFTA and SPP. Both of these “agreements” affect our citizens in a very meaningful way and yet they have, and indeed still are, being negotiated behind closed doors, without parliamentary oversight. There is no accountability for those that make these agreements, the “harmonizing” of regulations is agreed to without even consulting parliamentarians let alone citizens affected. This in my view is undemocratic and clearly shows why accountability an essential part of democracy.

Some will say that a government is held accountable during the next election, I say not usually, for the electorate is often unaware of many of the wrong doings or questionable actions of governments until long after the fact. Even brought to light such actions are quickly forgotten, buried in spin, or otherwise negated by the powerful in government. Rarely if ever are individuals in government actually taken to task for even clearly wrongful actions and even then such inquires are dragged out for years or set aside for “political” reasons. The only recourse it would seem is increased knowledge of, and accessibility to, information about government decisions and proposals, so that the public can vote from a position of knowing the facts not the spin shoveled out just before an election.

Whilst writing this post I discovered the web site VisibleGovernment.ca a citizens attempt to “Improve civic participation and government accountability in Canada by promoting online tools for government transparency.” I think they are on the right track here, whist we here may rant about what is wrong these folks are actually doing something very positive to improve our access to information and thus our democracy. They highlight the link between accountability and democratic government on their Mission page in these statements:-
“Well-functioning governments are a corner stone of a well-functioning society.
More accessible information will lead to greater government accountability and greater citizen involvement, resulting in a more representative and effective government
Citizens have a responsibility to hold their government accountable.
Governments have a responsibility to publish the data that allows citizens to hold them accountable and provide effective oversight of government activities.”

This project has already met with some success in collaborating with some of our public servants who are also seeking better ways to communicate both within government and with the general public using internet tools. This initiative has great potential to both keep citizens “in the loop” and to keep governments “open and accountable”, a promise oft made but rarely acted upon.

It is also clear that accountability cannot take place without openness within government, if the public does not know what is going on, either through lack of unbiased reporting by our MSM, secrecy by the government of the day or simply not knowing where to look for the information, then how can they judge. If they do manage to “keep up” then what recourse do they have when they see abuses or deliberate misinformation from those that we elect?

I wish I could point to an occasion where a sitting MP or government appointed official has received a meaningful penalty for lying to the public, stealing from the public purse, interfering with arms length crown corporations or commissions, or similar wrongdoings, but I cannot. It seems that a scapegoat can always be found or the matter buried in legal limbo for years. That’s not accountability in my mind.

Finally we have at this time one very important civil servant whose department is keeping both our MPs and the general public informed of the FACTS regarding the downturn and the governments response to it. The Parliamentary Budget officer Kevin Page is under intense pressure due to budget restraints upon his office. Two weeks ago Mr. Page issued a public plea for help, asking the Prime Minister and opposition to rescue his office as it confronts a funding shortfall and threats to its independence. The office has been dogged by pressures that could cut its profile. Ottawa has failed to deliver the full $2.8-million in promised funding, giving him less than two-thirds of that. Yesterday he told MPs that he's also having difficulty getting the federal Finance Department to provide him the raw financial data he needs for his analysis and forecasting.

Whether this is politically motivated I cannot say, but support him we must an independent analysis of government spending forecasts is essential. Lets make Open and Accountable and Accessible government more than just a failed election promise.

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