Speech on C-293 at the Queen's U. Foreign Policy Conference

November-14-09

Given at Robert Sutherland Hall, Queen's Univerity, Kingston, Ontario - Saturday, November 7, 2009

It takes a lot of effort to push a Private Member’s Bill from idea to Royal Assent and to see it sabotaged at the end of the process by a government makes you question whether you live in a country governed by the Rule of Law or a banana republic. This afternoon I’m going to take you on a legislative journey which may make you question your citizenship. In all candour I had anticipated delivering a certain kind of speech this afternoon but with the release of the Auditor General’s Report I’ve had to change tacks.

So let’s begin at the beginning. At the beginning of each Parliament all Members not in Cabinet are assigned a number by lottery for private members’ business. I got lucky. I got a low number so I knew that over the course of the last Parliament I had a chance to move a Bill through all the stages and make it law. It is a lot of hard work, time and effort but you like to think that in the end it was worth all the effort.

It begins with an idea. It had been my observation over the years that CIDA was a disaster. Huge amounts of money, little accountability and no proof of its effectiveness. Let me state that I’m no “bleeding heart liberal.” I was the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance for the years of the Martin government and am the longest serving member of the Finance Committee. Waste bothers me. I hate to see money squandered. I particularly hate to see money set aside for poor people squandered. In all my time in Finance the bean counters said CIDA is a black hole – with no mandate – no ministerial status (as an agency) – and no senior Minister with some real drag.

I freely admit my prejudice prior to ever even thinking about a legislative response. Report after report after report supported my prejudices. The Department of Finance did not think too highly of the Agency and it was subject to much eye rolling when it came up at the Finance Board Table.

So we lost government and got bounced to the other side of the aisle. I don’t like being in the penalty box and leaving the ice surface to the other guys but it is what it is and the Canadian people have spoken.

So here I am with a lucky low number, a well founded prejudice about CIDA’s aid effectiveness when along comes a nice neat tidy piece of legislation with a whole infrastructure of intellectual, legal and political support attached to it.

By the way, can you use the word “prejudice” at Queen’s University anymore or will the “thought police” bring you in for a correct thinking seminar? I digress.

These are all important considerations because you can have the best idea in the world but if you have no support your idea is DOA. Mr. Harper can draw on 450,000 public servants. I have 1 ½ staff.

Therefore an MP has to be able to marshal and count on enormous public support otherwise the inertia of 450,000 civil servants plus a government pathologically committed to the notion that everything liberal is ipso facto evil will kill any green shoot of an idea before it sees the light of day.

So here we are. An idea that resonates intellectually, experientially, and intuitively, a draft bill and a support network. Should be a piece of cake. Bob’s your uncle.

Well not quite.

Since the government put up such stiff opposition it was reasonable to anticipate a lot of ducking and hiding by the Minister and the Agency. So one evening at the Parliamentary Restaurant at a gathering of the faithful remnant we talked about keeping up the heat.

So we began with letters, e-mails, seminars, conferences and other harassment techniques designed to let CIDA know someone was watching.

Then we had a rather unfortunate event. It’s called an election. This one was necessary because the Prime Minister said it was. He even broke his own law because he said it was so necessary. Unlike this year’s threatened election which the Prime Minister said wasn’t necessary and spent several millions of our dollars to tell us that it wasn’t necessary. He is such a helpful man.

So again we’re back in the penalty box. It’s a smaller box and we didn’t like the last one and our views on this one haven’t improved.

Shortly after the last necessary election in the fall of 2008 CIDA had a conference for all the “stakeholders.” This is Ottawa talk for “dependent children.” Pretty well everyone at the conference is dependent on CIDA for money so any criticism is either circumspect or muted. I on the other hand am under no such constraint so I show up like the proverbial skunk at the garden party.

So after that “laugh in” moment we continued to do the drum beat. Glen Pearson, our CIDA critic and I had CIDA folks in to explain with a power point how the legislation applied. They attempted to show how the 3 commandments applied to programs but couldn’t say how they applied to policy. They couldn’t because CIDA was already minimizing the Bill’s applicability.

If there was any doubt the next event pretty well said it all. The Minister in January of this year announced that the countries of focus had changed. This is where you take your pathetic little aid money away from some desperately poor country. This is because these new countries of focus line up with of new found hemispheric interest. Our economic interests, and our political interests and our diplomatic interests.

Silly of me I thought the money was for poor people and only poor people. Not so. They and their government have to trade with us, vote for us at the UN and elsewhere and generally play nice in our hemispheric sand box.

The Minister made this huge policy announcement and didn’t say a word about the legislated mandate for ODA which is:

1) Poverty Alleviation
2) Taking into account the perspectives of the poor
3) Respect for international human rights standards

Up to now one could simply put it down to ideological bias. Blue good, red bad, the poor are best left to fend for themselves. Better to trade than give aid. All the usual ideological bromides of Conservative ignorance.

Except now it’s getting serious. This is the Law of Canada like it or not. You don’t get to ignore law just because you don’t like it, or do you? Ask my friend Pablo Rodriguez who got Royal assent to Kyoto Protocol which is another Bill that got Royal Assent and is being ignored by this government because it doesn’t fit with their ideology.

But back to C-293, Royal Assent formally known as An Act Respecting the Provision of Development Assistance Abroad .
So the next stage of ignoring the Rule of Law came at the end of September, the first reporting period following Royal Assent. I have it in my hand. Some have dismissed it as accounting rather than accountability. In my view it’s not even good accounting.

There are three commandments:

1) Poverty alleviation;
2) taking into consideration the perspectives of the poor;
3) must be based on international human rights standards.

Number one gets lip service; two and three get ignored completely.

What has been transpiring at CIDA since the present government took office in 2006 has been an exercise in futility and frustration.

The Agency’s sudden exit of numerous African countries, the majority of which were francophone caught all interested parties off-guard. The CIDA minister’s later news conference on how the agency would apportion its multi-lateral funding created great confusion.

The reality is that the present Conservative government has opted to promote immediate, real-time causes (Sri Lanka, Philippines, etc) while failing to provide any organizational framework for long-term accountability . Bill C-293 was a serious piece of legislation supported by all parties and a large network of stakeholders. The only real way of discovering whether the government was living up to that responsibility was through its annual accountability report for international development. Now that the first report has been published, it appears that even that undertaking has become an exercise in smoke and mirrors.

But it gets worse.

And this is the really depressing point. To be perfectly candid I have very low expectations of this Minister and this government. I have yet to be surprised.

But the big blow came this week. The auditor general released her 2005 report entitled “Strengthening Aid Effectiveness”. I read it with some eagerness hoping to see the only legislated mandate Canada has for ODA set out as the benchmark for the report. You can imagine my intense disappointment when the Auditor General didn’t even mention the Legislation let alone the criteria set out in it.

Gerry Barr, the President and CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation responded to the report saying “We agree with the report when it notes that international development requires stability, predictability and timely decision making, unfortunately that’s not what we’re getting. Missing from the Auditor General’s report is any mention of the recently passed Aid Accountability Act. The Act stipulated that Canadian aid must be focused on ending poverty, taking into account the perspectives of those living in poverty and be based on international human rights standards. With this act we have a way forward. A way of ensuring that Canada’s aid is effective.”

In my view the Auditor General’s report is border line useless. It is repetitive litany of all that ails CIDA. This has been well documented by others. Other countries can get their act together, why can’t we?

So what do I conclude? I’m not going to give you a nice tidy package.

If a government (a self described law and order government) is prepared to ignore the Rule of Law it will. If the Minister wishes to ignore the Rule of Law, she will.  If parliament’s watchdog is either ignorant of legislation or ignores the law – she will. Sheila Fraser and I are going to have a little chat. 

Hon. John McKay P.C., M.P.
Scarborough-Guildwood