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Federal Conservatives’ Open Government Action Plan fails to fulfill Open Government Partnership (OGP) membership requirements — fails to commit to strengthening access-to-information, ethics, lobbying, political finance, financial administration, public consultation and whistleblower protection laws and enforcement

To see related Canadian Press Wire article, click here

Other countries commit to many more key changes — OGP Steering Committee should reject Canada’s membership in OGP

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

OTTAWA – Today, as representatives of 60 countries gather in Brasilia, Brazil to present their two-year action plans at the first international Open Government Partnership (OGP) meeting, the nation-wide Open Government Coalition, Government Ethics Coalition and Money in Politics Coalition, made up of more than 70 citizen groups in total with three million members (all coordinated by Democracy Watch), called on the OGP Steering Committee to reject the federal Conservatives’ Action Plan for failing to fulfill its own commitment to increase government integrity.

The Conservatives committed to taking positive steps forward in three areas (what OGP calls Grand Challenges): 1. increasing public integrity; 2. improving public services, and; 3. effectively managing public resources.

However, the Conservatives’ Action Plan focuses only on making currently available information available online through open data systems, does not contain any measures to increase public integrity or increase accountability for mismanagement of public resources, and tries to claim credit for open government and public consultation initiatives the Liberals implemented years ago.  And given the Conservatives’ recent multibillion dollar F-35 fighter jet and prison spending boondoggles, and G8 summit spending scandal, it couldn’t be easier for them to more effectively manage public resources.

In all these ways, the Conservatives’ Action Plan violates the Open Government Partnership (OGP) requirements set out in the Open Government Declaration that all countries are required to sign.  To fulfill the Declaration requirements, the Conservatives’ Plan had to commit to strengthening open government in every way (as they did during the 2006 election with so-called “Federal Accountability Act” pledge — though they broke almost all of their promises).  Their Action Plan should have included measures to strengthen not only transparency laws and enforcement, but also federal ethics, lobbying, anti-corruption, political finance, financial administration, whistleblower protection and public consultation laws and enforcement, in government and in the private sector.

As a result, the OGP Steering Committee should reject the Conservatives Action Plan, and criticize them strongly for trying to claim they are doing much more than they are.

“The federal Conservatives continue to try to spin their limited online data activities as an actual open government action plan, and continue to refuse to keep their commitments to strengthening the rules and enforcement systems in federal transparency, ethics, anti-corruption, lobbying, consultation, whistleblower protection, political finance, and waste prevention laws, and so the international Open Government Partnership Steering Committee should reject and criticize their plan,” said Tyler Sommers, Coordinator of Democracy Watch.  “Secret, unethical lobbying, secret donations, secret expenses, excessive secrecy overall, conflicts of interest and sole-source contracts are currently legal, enforcement of key democracy and good government laws is too weak, as is whistleblower protection and public consultation, and so many key changes are clearly needed to ensure everyone in federal politics is effectively required to act honestly, openly, ethically, representatively and to prevent waste.”

The eight countries that founded the OGP have made much more significant commitments than Canada: the United States has committed to strengthening its whistleblower protection law, to establishing an online system for citizens to petition government, and to upholding best practices in public consultation; Mexico has committed to increasing disclosure laws for corporations; the Philippines has pledged to increase the scope of its access to information law, to increase monitoring of agencies that are vulnerable to corruption, and to establish an entity to assist citizen groups in engaging with government, and; the United Kingdom has committed to strengthening access-to-information rules and enforcement.

In January, Democracy Watch and the coalitions it coordinates submitted (archive website) a 19-page letter to the Conservatives which set out 45 recommendations containing dozens of needed changes to key laws.  Many of the recommended changes were promised by the Conservatives in their 2006 federal election platform, and many have also been recommended (in their respective issue areas) by the federal Information Commissioner, Ethics Commissioner, Commissioner of Lobbying, Parliamentary Budget Officer, Oliphant Commission, and by many other citizen groups.  Many of the key laws are required to be reviewed by Parliament in the next six months.

The federal Conservatives have failed so far to fulfill all of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) requirements — they failed to give advance notice of their public consultation; failed to undertake public awareness initiatives to ensure the public is aware of OGP and participates in the consultation; have failed so far to consult widely (the Conservatives’ consultation ran from December 6-January 16, one of the worst time periods for public consultation given the busy holiday period); failed to initiate their consultation early enough to develop a draft Action Plan for a December 7-8 OGP meeting that was held in Brasilia, Brazil, and; failed to release a draft plan at the meeting.

The Conservatives have, since last spring, tried to spin their limited open data initiatives as an actual open government plan.  They set up an Open Government website, initiated the Open Data Pilot Project (which only makes information that is already public available in a different form), and continued with so-called Open Dialogue through the Consulting with Canadians website established by the Liberals in 2004.  They have also tried to claim that old Open Information initiatives are new, including: Government-Wide Reporting of expenses, contracts etc. (which was initiated in 2004); publishing Access to Information Act bulletins (which was initiated in 1997); a requirement that federal government institutions disclose online summaries of completed access to information requests (which replicates a database of already-released public information that used to exist and that the Conservatives discontinued a few years ago), and; a requirement for online disclosure of financial and non-financial planning and performance reports (which have been made public for decades through tabling in Parliament).

In the June 3rd Speech from the Throne, the Conservatives promised that “Our Government will also ensure that citizens, the private sector and other partners have improved access to the workings of government through open data, open information and open dialogue” — but the federal Conservatives have talked a lot while doing little to make the federal government actually more open and transparent.

The federal Lobbying Act (archive website)Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act (archive website), and Conflict of Interest Act and related MP and Senate ethics rules (archive website) are all required to be reviewed by Parliament in the next six months and Democracy Watch and its coalitions have been pushing for changes for years.  As well, opposition MPs and the Information Commissioner and the Open Government Coalition have been pushing to strengthen the Access to Information Act (archive website) for several years.  The Canada Elections Act (archive website) must be strengthened to close loopholes that allow for secret, unlimited donations and loans and false phone calls to voters.  The Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act (archive website) must also be strengthened to comply with the 2004 United Nations Convention Against Corruption.  The Parliament of Canada Act must be changed to give the Parliamentary Budget Officer (website archive) the independence and powers needed to ensure truth-in-budgeting.  The Financial Administration Act must be strengthened to tighten up rules on sole-source contracting, and the Auditor General Act strengthened to increase enforcement.  Related Treasury Board codes, policies and rules in all of the above areas must also be strengthened (To see more details, click here).  And a “Meaningful Public Consultation Act” must be passed to help ensure representative government decisions.

Democracy Watch’s Open Government CoalitionGovernment Ethics Coalition and Money in Politics Coalition will continue to push the federal Conservatives to make real open government commitments, and to fulfill all of the Open Government Partnership OGP requirements in their two-year Action Plan in April, and if they don’t will appeal to the OGP Steering Committee to reject the Conservative government’s membership in OGP.

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Tyler Sommers, Coordinator of Democracy Watch
Tel: (613) 241-5179

Democracy Watch’s Open Government Campaign