Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Conservatives Left Twisting in the Wind by Media on G8/G20

Talk about media-driven election stories. Yesterday, Joan Bryden of the Canadian Press wrote about what was contained in a draft report from Auditor-General Sheila Fraser about spending on the G8/G20 summit. This January draft of the AG’s report was shared with Bryden by an opposition supporter.

The story created sparks almost immediately, over the notion that Parliament might have been misled by spending to the tune of $50 million which was ear-marked for Conservative Minister Tony Clement’s Parry Sound-Muskoka riding. Apparently, this money has been allocated by parliament as part of a larger offering to help with border improvements. Further, the draft report seen by Bryden alleges that decisions to allocate funds to particular projects were made by Clement in consultation with the Mayor of Huntsville and the owner of Deerhurst resort, and that this might have been illegal.

Well, needless to say, Bryden’s was the story of the day, arriving like a hand-grenade in the midst of the Conservative campaign. It certainly appeared that the AG was painting a very problematic picture of the Conservative government’s actions. John Baird had to take to the airwaves in an effort to calm the outrage which began seeping through the media and the other parties. Baird claimed that he had seen a later draft, and that in the draft of the report he saw, there was no mention of misleading parliament.

Later, Sheila Fraser herself urged Canadians to be cautious about a leaked draft report, and to reserve judgement until the final version of the report could be tabled with parliament.

All parties yesterday were calling on the Auditor-General to release her report, but Sheila Fraser was clear that there is currently no mechanism in the legislation under which her office operates that would allow her to do so. And that really should come as no surprise to Canadians, as the Opposition Parties had been demanding the release of this report for some time, and the Conservatives have (quite rightly) pointed out that since the AG reports to parliament, Canadians will have to wait until parliament is sitting again before the report is made public (which actually makes their call to the AG yesterday to release the report quite disingenuous, and very hypocritical).

Today, media outlets such as the Globe & Mail are calling for the release of the report, and Constitutional experts are chipping in that maybe the Speaker of the House has some kind of authority to either compel the release of the report or simply provide the public with a copy itself. And of course, we’ve seen leaks now of later versions of the report.

Lost in all of the calls being made to the Auditor General now are a couple of really important matters which have everything to do with our democratic institutions. First off, the Auditor General has made it clear that she believes that there is no legal way for her to make the final version of the report public until such a time that Parliament is sitting again. The Auditor-General reports to Parliament; she does not answer to the Prime Minister or cabinet, or the leaders of Opposition parties. She certainly doesn’t answer to the media, and she answers to Canadians only through parliament. Why are so many voices so very quick now to call for our Auditor General to break the law, and to abandon the paramount relationship that she has with Parliament?

If Fraser decides that it really isn’t important that she provide this report to Parliament right now, because of the current crisis, what about the next time there is controversy with a report? If she compromises her reporting relationship to Parliament now, how will we be able to ensure that she won’t do so again in the future? Given that the Auditor-General’s role is non-partisan and exempt from political interference, why do Canadians want to see this position diminished? The short term gains of finding out what, exactly, is in the final version of her report do not justify the long-term risks associated with politicizing the office of the Auditor General.

Secondly, what on earth is going on with our media, who have been the most active drivers of this entire election campaign? Joan Bryden ought to have known the hornet’s nest that these allegations would stir up for the Conservative Party. And really, she ought to have known that her story on this leaked early draft of the AG’s report would leave the Conservatives in a vulnerable position, given that there really is no way for the Cons to justify or deny this accusation – because the accusation itself might actually not have ever been made. Indeed, if Baird and accounts emerging today about later drafts are to be believed, the notion that the Conservatives “misled” Parliament about procurement have not been carried forward in subsequent drafts.

The fact that the Conservatives poured money into Clement’s riding for questionable G8/G20 projects has been known for a long while. That the money might not have ended up there in the most transparent way possible is very problematic. The twist to this story added yesterday had to do with misleading Parliament and potential illegal actions of a Minister of the Crown. But this was all based on an excerpt from an early draft. With there being no mechanism for the release of the final draft until after the election, the Conservatives have been put in a very awkward and unfortunate position, on the eve of the televised Leader’s debate no less.

I really have to question what Bryden was trying to accomplish here. Look, I don’t think it’s any secret that I don’t have much love for the Conservative Party, but what happened yesterday wasn’t right. Did the Conservatives pork-barrel spending to Parry Sound-Muskoka? Absolutely, but again, there's nothing new there. The whole G8/G20 was an unbridled fiasco, in my opinion. But yesterday's accusations of misleading parliament and doing something "possibly illegal" will stick to the Conservatives now, even though they might not actually be true, or only partly true. What is known is that we just can’t know what the truth is until Fraser tables her final report.

This whole episode smells of political opportunism on the part of…well, somebody. Maybe one of the Opposition parties. But maybe not. Maybe it’s just political opportunism on the part of the media, who were out to create the latest news story of the election. Either way, though, this story has placed the Conservatives in a very awkward situation, where they can neither confirm or deny the accusations being made against them, because the only place where the truth of the whole matter lies is in a report which Parliament and Canadians can’t see until after the election.

Joan Bryden and the Canadian Press should have realized that their piece about a leaked early-version of the A-G’s report would put the Conservatives in this sort of bind. Since it wasn’t clear at all whether what was reported was in any way what is in the mind of the Auditor General, what good did it do to reveal this to Canadians? The only good that I can think of is to make the Conservatives look bad. And that is simply political opportunism.

We cried foul when the RCMP interfered in the 2006 election when the NDP released a letter to the media saying that Liberals were being investigated for releasing details of the budget. Really, what happened yesterday is no different, as this latest intervention has left one Party unable to confirm or deny much of anything. It wasn’t right in 2006 and it’s not right now.

What was reported yesterday wasn’t news. It was politically opportunistic innuendo, which used the Office of the Auditor General as a political prop.

Canadians should be concerned about the level of influence which the media is having in this election. Rather than simply reporting on the news, the media appears to be going out of its way to make the news during this election. It is to the detriment of our democracy that these circumstances appear to be pervasive.

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