A call to leash independent watchdogs | Squamish Chief

A call to leash independent watchdogs

The man who has been heading up a review of the British Columbia legislature's independent watchdogs recently wrote an academic paper accusing Alberta's former auditor general of overstepping his authority, recommending his successors be put on a leash.

And that, according to University of Victoria political science professor emeritus Norman Ruff, suggests government might be making a play to muzzle some of own watchdogs.

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The speaker of the legislative assembly, Bill Barisoff, appointed a four-member panel to conduct that review on March 3 including Ron Hicks, who retired as Alberta's top bureaucrat in 2008 and has since become a professor of strategic management and organization at the University of Alberta.

The panel was charged with answering six questions about the legislature's eight statutory officers, which includes the auditor general, the chief electoral officer, the children and youth representative, the conflict of interest commissioner, the information and privacy commissioner and the ombudsperson.

Among those questions: "Does each officer fulfill and adhere to his or her statutory mandate?" and "Do effective mechanisms exist to ensure that activities of each statutory officer are conducted fairly and transparently?"

But Hicks seems to have come to that panel with some strong opinions about such officers.

Just 22 days after being appointed its chair, the University of Alberta release one of his papers entitled "An Auditor General Who is Both Independent and Accountable: Working Effectively Within Alberta's Westminster Model Democracy."

In that paper, Hicks took aim at Alberta's former auditor general Fred Dunn for issuing "system audits" that went beyond examining how government was measuring its performance.

Instead, he wrote, those reports "impinged" on the government's "policy making role" by criticizing its policies and programs.

As a result, the retired bureaucrat recommended the creation of processes for the auditor general "to solicit various viewpoints and determine what he or she will audit," as well as reviewing the independent officer's performance.

And he further recommended a "mechanism" to ensure the auditor general adheres to the Auditor General Act.

The paper, which was circulated to Alberta MLAs by the province's speaker Ken Kowalski, was seen by Liberal leader David Swann as attacking the "very foundation of democratic accountability in Alberta" and contributing to a "new culture of silence and authoritarianism."

"I understand that senior civil servants don't like to have an independent party oversee their activity and give recommendations for improvement," later added University of Alberta accounting department chairman Karim Jamal, in a letter published in the Edmonton Journal, "but the critique of the Auditor General is unfounded."

So what does that mean for British Columbia's watchdogs?

Well, we don't know yet because the review Hick's panel prepared, which was complete on April 15, hasn't yet been made public.

But here's Ruff's best guess: "It may be the choice of the chair helps direct the likely direction of the report When people are appointed to so-called independent reviews, they aren't plucked from the heavens. They come with a background. And, in this case, the background seems to suggest there's an agenda here to reel in the independent officers.

"The government has already moved in that direction last week with the children and families representative," he continued, referencing a proposed government amendment that would ensure Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond information rights don't give her unrestricted access to confidential cabinet documents.

"And, given Mr. Hicks's published critique in Alberta, it would seem government is moving in that direction in the case of the other independent officers."

Asked whether those officers should be worried, Ruff stated, "Well, they're probably already fearful" before quipping, "If you think they're out to get you, they probably are."

Mr. Hicks's fellow panellists were Brenda Eaton, who served as a deputy minister to Premier Gordon Campbell, the former head of the Ontario public service Tony Dean and ex-British Columbia auditor general George Morfitt.

Sean Holman is editor of the online provincial political news journal Public Eye (publiceyeonline.com). He can be reached at editorial@publiceyeonline.com.

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