This article focuses on the roles played by Legislative Officers in the
provinces and especially Alberta. Annual opinion polls say Canadians do
not trust politicians. Do Legislature Officers offer services that will
help to change this perception?
When you talk to people who serve as Legislative Officers, they will stress
their independence as critical to the success of their office. In Alberta,
most Officers are hired after an open competition and an interview process
conducted by an all-party Committee of the House. An exception is made
for the Auditor General since that person must have audit experience. Even
in that case, more than one person is usually considered and the appointment
is recommended by the all-party Committee.
Are Legislature Officers truly independent? I would say yes, based on their
qualifications. Most of my colleagues as Ethics Commissioners are retired
judges or are lawyers. A number of Information and Privacy Commissioners
have legal or academic backgrounds. Chief Electoral Officers have elections
experience. Albertas Ombudsmen have tended to have policing backgrounds.
Some Officers have government experience or have served in elected office,
but I believe they have had the independence to speak openly, and when
necessary, critically, of the government or elected officials in their
While some Legislative Officers are not re-appointed, it has been rare
that an Officer has not completed a term. There are also, no doubt, cases
where an Officer would have liked to have been re-appointed but was told
it either would not happen or they could apply (which is usually a message
that you should not bother to do so). A fixed term allows the Legislature
to review an Officers performance just as voters review a Members performance
In Alberta, Officers budgets are not approved by the government but
by an all-party Committee. We are questioned about our estimates and the
Committee can refuse to approve the amounts sought. When an Officers budget
is reduced, that Officer must decide whether his or her independence is
being threatened or whether the reduction was in keeping with an overall
effort to keep expenditures within certain percentages. When the House
in Alberta considers the main estimates each year, the first item of business
is a vote on each Officers budget and there is no debate or amendment
allowed [Standing Order 61(8)].
Along with our budget submissions, we are encouraged to submit a business
plan. Within the business plan, an Officer may choose to set goals and
may measure the achievement of the past years goals. The Ombudsman in
Alberta identifies his performance measurements in his annual report. The
Auditor General sets and measures the performance of his Office in his
business plans. He advocates that the other Legislative Officers do so
as well. My office identifies goals but does not measure performance.
Each Officer is also audited by the Office of the Auditor General annually.
We post our travel expenses online. We rarely receive access to information
requests and, for the most part, are exempt from that legislation. I believe
we all try to be as open and transparent as possible while respecting the
confidentiality provisions in our legislation.
We are fortunate in Alberta that the Legislature has started to put into
most Acts a requirement that the Act be reviewed from time to time. My
legislation just went through such a review. I believe that speaks to the
need to address changing expectations from the public and from Members
as well. If the public wants to see more oversight, more transparency,
it is likely that our legislation will be amended to reflect that or,
at the very least, those opinions are likely to be part of the debate.
My office has been asked on more than one occasion whether the Conflicts
of Interest Act for MLAs is really necessary or whether Members would act
ethically regardless of it. I believe Members generally do act ethically
and would do so whether they were obligated to do so by legislation or
That having been said, I believe the Act does make a difference. It gives
the public some assurance that there are rules and that there is someone
and an independent someone who can look into allegations of wrongdoing.
It also gives Members a source for guidance on ethical issues that are
not always clear.
Alberta was the first jurisdiction in North America to have an Ombudsman.
The Ombudsman has played a key role in reviewing administrative decisions
and has conducted broader reviews when needed (examples include correctional
facilities and child care centres). The role of that Officer has expanded
over the years, most recently to include the authority to review matters
involving some professional organizations, e.g. persons under the health
professions, regulated accounting professions, etc.
My own office was set up to deal with conflicts of interest for Members
of the Assembly only. Shortly after the office opened, my predecessor was
asked if he would also assume responsibility for senior officials (deputy
minister-level appointees) and that happened. The Alberta Legislature is
expected to consider creating a lobbyists registry next year. My office
has offered to take on that role. In Ontario, the Integrity Commissioner
has responsibility for MPPs, reviewing and recommending salaries for Members,
reviewing Ministerial expense claims, lobbyists registration, and, according
to the Globe and Mail, they may soon be responsible for whistleblower protection
legislation. Many of my Canadian colleagues have more than one role some
are responsible for both Members and senior public servants and, in Newfoundland,
the person serves as both Conflicts Commissioner and Chief Electoral Officer.
One area where public expectations have not been met is with respect to
leadership campaigns. Alberta, like most provinces, does not have legislation
to deal with leadership campaigns. The public may or may not find out who
contributed how much to any candidate. The Chief Electoral Officer has
no authority to monitor contributions or expenses. I believe there will
be changes in this area throughout the country in the next few years.
The response by government to the Officers recommendations or reports
is perhaps one measurement of the success of independent Officers. Most
(although not all) of the Auditor Generals recommendations are accepted
each year. The Ombudsmans recommendations are generally well received.
Few of the Information and Privacy Commissioners Orders are sent for judicial
review. Regarding Conflict of Interest Commissioners, very few serious
breaches are reported. Most often, where a serious breach has occurred,
the politician involved resigns so the Legislature does not have to deal
with a recommendation of the Commissioner.
Do the Legislative Officers meet public expectations about holding elected
officials accountable? Probably not. A recent survey by the Alberta Ombudsman
revealed that many citizens are not aware of his office. I would expect
the same result if my office were to conduct a survey. Our offices are
similar in that much of our routine work is probably not newsworthy to
the media. Special reports by the Ombudsman and investigations by my office
attract more attention because there may be a hint of scandal or wrongdoing
involved. The case resolved to everyones satisfaction by the Ombudsman
or the Member following my advice and avoiding conflicts of interest is
not a story. The public may therefore not know what we do. We do quietly
and, I hope, responsibly carry out our functions and in doing so, we
help to ensure accountable and transparent government.
I can say for myself and my office that I have never felt pressured by
any politician, senior official or the media to change the way I do things
or to change a decision I made. My office has brought together representatives
from all parties to discuss a matter and found that such a gathering is
very useful. It allowed the office to learn more about the role of Members
which I believe resulted in better advice to Members.
Criticism in the media can be difficult for Legislative Officers. Most
Officers would take the point of view that their decisions, like those
of the judiciary, must speak for themselves and the Officers will not be
drawn into a debate on their decisions.
What more would citizens want? From my offices experience, some citizens
want us to make elected officials act ethically according to the citizens
interpretation of what is ethical. This may mean finding a Health Minister
to be unethical if abortions are publicly funded or an Education Minister
unethical if junk food is served in school cafeterias. But we cannot meet
all the expectations of all the citizens.
What my office does encourage is ethical leadership. I wrote in my 2004-05
As has been noted by many others the media and academics, among others
what the public appears to want most from its leaders is accountability.
It is not sufficient to only step forward when credit is due for good work.
Canadians would like to see officials step forward immediately when mistakes
are made or programs are not carried out in the manner intended. Citizens
would like to know what went wrong and how it went wrong and, yes, they
are interested in who was responsible. Simply assigning blame, however,
is not enough (nor, obviously, is not accepting responsibility at all).
I would agree with what I feel the majority of Canadians believe: officials
need to demonstrate more accountability in providing Canadians with information
about what government is doing, how decisions are made and carried out,
and on results good or bad.
Together with my Legislative Officer colleagues in Alberta and across Canada,
I believe we are independent persons who serve the public and the public
interest by reviewing decisions, advising on or interpreting legislation,
recommending changes to policies or procedures, and ordering government
departments and elected officials to do the things the public expects and
wants them to do. Not everyone will agree with every decision we make,
but I do believe the majority of citizens would agree that our offices
should exist, we should be independent of government, and that we do, in
fact, serve to keep government and elected officials accountable.