CUTS WILL REDUCE INDEPENDENT CHECKS ON GOVERNMENT ACTION
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association is urging the Liberal government to reject the cuts proposed to British Columbia’s watchdogs by a government finance committee. The Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services has recommended to government that the budgets of six of seven statutory officers be cut from 15-45% over the next three years.
According to BCCLA President John Dixon: “Effective governance requires public confidence in the integrity of government, and statutory officers play an important role as guarantors of integrity which can never be supplied by either partisan opposition or the media. The magnitude of the proposed cutbacks will almost certainly have a significant negative impact on these agencies and their work to protect central democratic values like transparency, accountability, fairness, the rule of law and privacy.”
Added Dixon, “It is ironic, to say the least, that a government that campaigned on the principles of good government, transparency and accountability is undercutting the very watchdogs that serve all British Columbians, regardless of political stripe, to ensure integrity in government.”
The BCCLA understands that all government offices, given the direction of the government’s fiscal constraints, are targets for cutbacks. However, the Association questions the wisdom of slashing watchdog budgets that actually don’t cost British Columbians a lot of money in relative terms. Regrettably, the committee’s analysis did not include a detailed account of the tangible benefits these offices provide to British Columbians.
The BCCLA has worked hard to establish these agencies over the years and believes that they provide excellent value in protecting values fundamental in a democratic society.
Aside from the impact of the cuts themselves on services, the Association is particularly concerned with the committee going beyond its financial mandate to make recommendations that appear to attack the jurisdictional authority and scope of some of these agencies.
For example, the committee criticized the Police Complaint Commissioner (PCC) for being pro-active in undertaking public education about its mandate and recommended that it be more reactive. The BCCLA’s lengthy experience with the police complaint process suggests that what is needed is just the opposite—public confidence in a system for police accountability calls for more pro-active public education from the PCC, not less.
The committee also questioned whether the broad scope of the Information and Privacy Commissioner should be retained given the Liberal’s move to “smaller government”. Similarly, the committee suggested that the workload of the Ombudsman’s office will shrink.
In contrast, the BCCLA believes the opposite is more likely to happen—there will be even greater demand for the services of independent government watchdogs as government shrinks its services to citizens. Cutting watchdog budgets will undermine their ability to respond to demands for their services and reduce their ability to act pro-actively to ensure good government.
The Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services recommended the following specific cuts:
Chief Electoral Officer (45%)
Child, Youth and Family Advocate (45%)
Information and Privacy Commissioner (35%)
Police Complaint Commissioner (30%)
Auditor General (15%)
January 14, 2002
The Honourable Gordon Campbell
Premier of British Columbia
P.O. Box 9041, Stn Prov. Gov’t
Dear Mr. Premier:
RE: Proposed Budget Cuts to Statutory Officers of B.C.
I am writing to you on behalf of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) to urge you and your government to reject the recommendations of the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services (the “Committee”) for drastic cuts to the operating budgets of Statutory Officers of British Columbia.
These agencies play a crucial, independent role in our democracy by promoting central democratic values such as accountability, fairness, the rule of law, privacy, and transparency in government decision-making. As such, they are important institutions that uphold the principles of good government. Dollar for dollar, they represent a vital investment in democracy.
Moreover, at a time when British Columbia lacks an official opposition, these officers provide a critical, yet non-partisan, check on government action.
The BCCLA understands that all government agencies, given the direction of the government’s fiscal constraints, are targets for cutbacks. However, we question the wisdom of slashing government watchdog budgets that actually do not cost British Columbians a lot of money in either relative or absolute terms. Regrettably, the Select Standing Committee’s analysis did not include a detailed account of the tangible benefits these officers provide to British Columbians.
Aside from the impact of the cuts themselves on services, the BCCLA is particularly concerned with the Committee went well beyond its mandate to make budget recommendations. Some of the Committee’s comments reflect an attack on the jurisdictional authority and scope of some of these agencies.
For example, the Committee criticized the Police Complaint Commissioner (PCC) for being pro-active in providing public education about its mandate. The Committee recommended that the PCC be more reactive. The BCCLA’s lengthy experience with the police complaint process suggests that what is needed from the PCC is just the opposite—public confidence in a system for police accountability calls for more pro-active public education from the PCC, not less. In fact, we argued that the PCC undertake more public education than it is currently undertaking in our submission in December to the Special Committee to Review the Police Complaint Process (John Nuraney, Chair).
Similarly, with respect to the Information and Privacy Commissioner, the Committee states: “With the trend to smaller government and a new service delivery model, though, we question whether the broad scope of the Commissioner’s jurisdictional authority needs to be maintained.” In contrast, we suspect that the changes that the government is making in the size and operation of government might make the Commissioner more busy, not less.
Given these comments, we believe that the Committee inappropriately strayed from its financial mandate and, to the extent it did so, undermined the legitimacy of its own recommendations.
There is a temptation for the political party in power to see these “watchdog” agencies as a superfluous—and hence expensive—nags. But from the perspective of the Government of British Columbia (which is a completely different entity from the Liberal Party of B.C.) the statutory officers are properly seen as important guarantors of its integrity. And this is, we believe, the most powerful argument against chasing relatively tiny economies at the expense of the continued, effective operation of these offices. Effective governance requires public confidence in the integrity of government, and statutory officers play an important role as guarantors of integrity which can never be supplied by either partisan opposition or the media.
In sum, it would be regrettable if your government, which campaigned on values such as openness and accountability, were to follow the Committee’s recommendations. Instead, we urge you to reject these recommendations as false economies that threaten the effectiveness of government.
cc: Gary Collins, Minister of Finance
Geoff Plant, Attorney General of British Columbia