Apr 8, 2010

Legislative watch dogs get “reviewed.” Is there a leash in their future?


For some reason it makes me nervous when I hear that people who sometimes make life difficult for the government are being “reviewed.” And it makes me even more nervous when it is happening completely in the shadows.

On March 3rd the Speaker of BC’s Legislature announced the creation of a panel to review the work of the eight independent, Statutory Officers of the Legislature. These Officers are the Auditor General, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Conflict of Interest Commissioner, the Information and Privacy Commissioner, the Merit Commissioner, the Ombudsperson, the Police Complaint Commissioner and the Representative for Children and Youth.

This can’t have been a very loud announcement because it received no coverage in the media and I can’t even find it on the legislative website. Only Vaughn Palmer has covered it and then only in his blog.

The Auditor General and the Representative for Children and Youth in particular have consistently raised troubling questions for the government and a review that looks at their mandates has the potential to reduce their mandates. The Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services reviews the budgets of Legislative Officers. The Clerk assistant of the Legislature tells me that:

“Over time, concerns have been expressed in that forum and elsewhere by Members (MLAs) and the Statutory Officers themselves to the effect that overlapping and conflicting mandates exist and it would be timely for an arms-length review to examine the subject.”

The four member review panel is led by a former Alberta Deputy Minister. Two other members are former provincial deputy ministers. The fourth member is former BC Auditor General George Morfitt. So three of the four members have probably had run ins with Statutory Officers themselves. The panel is supposed to report to the Speaker on April 15th.

The review was authorized by the Legislative Assembly Management Committee and the Clerk Assistant says this is the body that will “most likely” consider its findings. This, at least, is encouraging because this Committee is made up of both NDP and Liberal House Leaders, the Caucus Chairs, the Chief Government Whip and the Speaker. Not balanced but at least it’s not a Cabinet Committee.

Legislative Officers offer an important window on government giving us access to government information we could never get otherwise. The Ombudsperson and the Representative for Children and Youth impose an accountability that can be awkward for government.

These people all do important work and this “review” deserves more attention than it has been getting. We need to make sure the watch dogs don’t get leashed.