Some reflections on the Gomery report
ONE THING THAT CAN BE SAID about Part 1 of Justice John
Gomery’s report on the federal sponsorship program is that it contained few, if any, surprises.
Although some Canadians might have been hoping for criticism of Prime Minister Paul Martin’s failure to monitor what was going on while he was finance minister, anyone aware of how governments work will tell you that’s not how finance ministries spend their time and effort.
They have to concentrate on big pictures, such as overall spending programs and changes in revenue structures, rather than monitoring the efficiency of individual programs.
Nor should anyone be surprised at the road Judge Gomery took in dealing with the conduct of former prime minister Jean Chrétien and his closest advisers, who he said must shoulder most of the responsibility for “a depressing story of greed, venality and misconduct.”
After all, the program itself has always been seen as Mr. Chrétien’s baby, and although it was operated through a department, the Prime Minister’s Office itself was deeply involved.
The report characterizes Mr. Chrétien as the architect of the program and his chief of staff, Jean Pelletier, as the man who implemented it.
“They are to be blamed for omissions. Since Mr. Chrétien chose to run the Program from his own office, and to have his own exempt staff take charge of its direction, he is accountable for the defective manner in which the Sponsorship Program and initiatives were implemented. Mr. Pelletier, for whom Mr. Chrétien was responsible, failed to take the most elementary precautions against mismanagement.”
The point we see being made is that although there’s no evidence that Mr. Chrétien or even Mr. Pelletier knew about the corruption, the prime minister could and should have set rules aimed at minimizing the risk of money being misspent, and instead allowed the costly program to operate shrouded in “a veil of secrecy.”
As we see it, the second Gomery report, currently scheduled for release in February, is far more likely to be newsworthy and have more long-term impact on how all governments in Canada go about awarding non-tendered contracts, particularly when they invade the area of advertising.
Rightly or wrongly, a lot of Canadians suspect that what Judge Gomery witnessed was little more than the tip of an iceberg, a scandalous situation that has deep historic roots.
Certainly, advertising is one area where patronage has always played an important role, particularly after a change of government at Ottawa or in the provinces.
The sad fact of the matter is that some ad agencies have tended to ally themselves with one or the other political party, and any election that results in a new government taking office also results in ad agencies that had done work for the old government being quickly replaced by agencies that support the winners.
And in some cases, the stakes are pretty high, even in the absence of strange new programs in untravelled areas, such as finding corporations willing to boost the government’s image in one part of the jurisdiction.
In Ontario, successive governments have been under attack for the millions of taxpayers’ dollars that were spent on commercials and other forms of advertising that seemed to be based mainly on improving the government’s image rather than on conveying needed information about a government program.
And although Premier Dalton McGuinty had promised to put an end to this practice, we have recently noted the return of one element of the campaigns by the Harris and Eves governments that formed at least part of the problem: colour-coding.
In a province where the Progressive Conservatives have been in power just as regularly as the Liberals have been at Ottawa, just about everything related to the government was Code Blue — everything down to things like licence plates and government stationery.
Although we’ve heard no suggestion as yet that the Ontario Liberals are finally going to come up with new licence designs to replace the 1970s design currently still in fashion, recent TV commercials promoting the free flu shots available to all Ontarians aren’t in black, grey or purple, but rather in what we think looks suspiciously like Liberal Red.
We think most Canadians believe that ad agencies that have won government contracts are more likely than not to turn back some of the resultant profit in the form of financial support for the party in power. It may well be that the only uncertainty is as to how widespread the practice is, and whether the parties in power and/or the legislation they have enacted encourage the practice.
The big challenge now facing Judge Gomery is to come up with proposals that would eliminate, or at least sharply reduce, the likelihood of a repeat of what has come to be dubbed Adscam.
One thing we don’t expect him to propose is a measure that would leave governments exposed to lawsuits of the kind Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has talked of launching: one on behalf of taxpayers demanding that the party in power be held liable for all misspent money, not just kickbacks it had received.
We do think any government contracts for advertising should have to be tendered or at least made the subject of a call for proposals, with the winners being selected by an all-party legislative committee.
On the other hand, we remain unconvinced that there is any need for modern governments to involve outside advertising agencies.
We would submit that the easiest may of preventing a future Adscam is to require all government advertising to be handled “inhouse,” perhaps using employees hired from the private sector.
That way, there surely would be no risk of anything worse than simple over-spending.