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Slash power of PMO, Gomery urges

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

Ottawa — Parliament has to take a greater role in the federal system by keeping a tighter check on the influence of the Prime Minister's Office and the cabinet, Mr. Justice John Gomery said yesterday in his final report on the sponsorship program.

Judge Gomery said the mismanagement in the $250-million national-unity initiative started in the "all-powerful" political sphere of government.

"The most troubling facts were that this aberration originated in the Prime Minister's Office in the first place and was allowed to continue for so long, despite internal audit reports, investigations, warnings and complaints by public servants involved in the actual contracts in question," Judge Gomery said at a news conference.

He said Canadians are frustrated that no one has stepped forward to take responsibility for the problems and that no one has paid a substantial price for the wrongdoing.

"Perhaps the most widespread feeling among Canadians is that those who break the rules are not punished, but that they should be," he said in his report.

"The trust of Canadians in their political and administrative institutions has been badly damaged. Canadians want it restored."

Prime-minister-designate Stephen Harper welcomed Judge Gomery's 19 recommendations, saying that his government's first piece of legislation, an accountability act, will include many of them.

Among other things, Judge Gomery called for measures that would:

  • Ensure that senior civil servants have the full responsibility for the management of public funds and be required to appear before a beefed-up public accounts committee of the House of Commons to justify their actions
  • Increase transparency in government by obliging bureaucrats to create a clear paper trail to explain their decisions and make it easy for the public to see these documents via a revamped Access to Information Act
  • Give the civil service the power to fire a bureaucrat who breaks the federal law that governs the proper disbursement of public funds
  • Prevent political aides from having privileged access to jobs in the bureaucracy after serving three years in a minister's office

    Full text of the second Gomery's report 19 recommendations

    Judge Gomery said the ultimate solution to the problems in Ottawa is not a whole new set of rules, but a change in the government's culture, with a renewed emphasis on transparency and accountability.

    He said that in the case of the sponsorship scandal, political officials simply blamed the bureaucracy for the wrongdoing, while civil servants said they were following orders from their political bosses.

    The sponsorship program was the Chrétien government's strategy to increase federal visibility in Quebec after the 1995 referendum by placing ads at sporting and cultural events.

    Almost half the money went to Liberal-friendly firms, sometimes for little or no work.

    Judge Gomery said that Parliament's role in keeping the upper levels of government accountable could be enhanced by giving parliamentary committees more resources to help them track what is going on inside government departments.

    "Parliament's capacity to exercise its traditional role of watchdog of the public purse and guardian of the public interest will have to be reinforced," he said.

    Mr. Harper vowed to move quickly on some recommendations, such as those that address the need for greater transparency in government and increased protection for whistle-blowers.

    However, Mr. Harper said that other recommendations will have to wait, such as the dramatic reshaping of the relationship between the Privy Council Office, ministers and deputy ministers.

    "I don't plan to make these kinds of structural changes during the transition period or the early months of government. I don't need the complication of creating major structural changes, but I think the recommendations have merit," said Mr. Harper, whose new government will be sworn in on Monday.

    He said that he will meet Judge Gomery's suggested two-year deadline to report on the government's response to the recommendations.

    "That's certainly more than enough time," he said.

    Judge Gomery was asked to investigate the sponsorship scandal in early 2004 after the release of a scathing report into the program by Auditor-General Sheila Fraser.

    Judge Gomery sat through nine months of public hearings, concluding in his preliminary report last November that the sponsorship program was at the heart of a "kickback scheme" in which advertising firms overcharged the government and made illicit donations to the Liberal Party of Canada.

    "I had not imagined that money was delivered in brown envelopes to high-level officials in a political party to pay for the services of election workers," Judge Gomery said at the news conference.

    "I was disgusted to learn that, as were many people. I lost my innocence."

    Judge Gomery said he looks forward to returning to his job on the Quebec Superior Court, where he will sit on the bench until he reaches 75 in the summer of 2007.

    "It's going to be delicious," he said of his impending return to obscurity.

    Outgoing Prime Minister Paul Martin, who created the inquiry and lost the recent election in part over the scandal, thanked Judge Gomery for his work.

    "His insights and recommendations will be of benefit to all Canadians in the ongoing debate as to how best to ensure government activities are conducted openly, transparently and effectively," Mr. Martin said in a statement.

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