Who is watching the watchdogs?

In many respects, Canada is a nation of watchdogs. We have watchdogs to ensure police are not abusing their power. We have watchdogs to keep politicians from padding their expenses. We even have watchdogs to determine if private utilities should be allowed to raise their rates.

In many respects, Canada is a nation of watchdogs.

We have watchdogs to ensure police are not abusing their power. We have watchdogs to keep politicians from padding their expenses. We even have watchdogs to determine if private utilities should be allowed to raise their rates.

Naturally, some watchdogs are more effective and worthy of respect than others.

The good ones, such as Auditor General Sheila Fraser and Parliament’s budget watchdog, Kevin Page, regularly embarrass the people who appointed them by revealing wasteful spending or a lack of planning.

The bad ones, such as Alberta’s Energy and Utilities Board, hire private investigators to spy on ordinary citizens.

Not surprisingly, relatively few Albertans continue to have confidence in the EUB, even though it was reorganized and split into two after the spying scandal came to light.

Similarly, whenever an incident of possible police misconduct is investigated by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, people don’t exactly make wagers on which way “the team” is going to rule. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion and everyone in the know recognizes that.

Likewise, can anyone remember the last time an Alberta ethics commissioner found the provincial government to be in the wrong?

Unfortunately, many watchdogs are appointed seemingly to whitewash the truth and keep abuses of power from public scrutiny.

Perhaps, behind closed doors, when they are appointed, such watchdogs are told explicitly or implicitly: “Just keep your mouth shut, take the money and don’t rock the boat.”

Fortunately, some watchdogs take a higher ethical path.

Justice John Gomery, for instance, refused to be bullied by former prime minister Jean Chretien when he presided over the Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Activities.

Paul Kennedy, chairman of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, separated the wheat from the chaff when he presided over the inquiry into the Taser-related death of a man at Vancouver International Airport.

Kennedy told the truth and made it clear to Canadians who told lies at the inquiry.

Regrettably, he is about to leave office and the federal government appears to have no appetite for appointing a successor to watch over the country’s national police force.

“When I’m gone, there will be nobody to sign any decisions or reports,” says Kennedy, who served as commissioner for four years. “There will be no one to authorize further investigations, to initiate complaints against the RCMP, nothing. Civilian oversight will be dead in the water.”

As for Page, the parliamentary budget watchdog, he’s waiting for the feds to grant his office the $2.8-million budget he says it needs to get the job done.

Canadians need watchdogs to keep the authorities honest, and such watchdogs need the mandate and resources to do their jobs.

After all, a watchdog with no teeth is no watchdog at all.

Lee Giles is an Advocate editor.

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