Creaming of Crown corporations for outrageous part-time per diems worthy of public attention

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An equally important subject for parliamentary scrutiny is the culture of secrecy rampant at the Crown corporation setting Canadian safety and health standards

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on February 8, 2016.

OTTAWA—Most Canadians have never heard of the Commercial Credit Corporation.

It wasn’t until the CBC revealed an astonishing pattern of excessive part-time per diems that attention was focused into some dark corners of Crown corporations.

The issue of inflated per diems is certainly worth public review. Even more important is the absence of oversight, parading as arm’s length management in many Crown corporations.

In my job as Canadian Heritage minister, I was responsible for more than half the Crown corporations of government. Most of them were involved in the cultural sector, including the CBC and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Crown corporations aggressively promoted their “arms length relationship” with government.

They enjoyed most of the freedoms of a private sector company, with no oversight from shareholders and little review by governments.

Politicians are generally afraid to dig too deeply into Crown corporations because they are busy with their own ministry responsibilities.

And the Crown corporations also work hard to distance themselves from government surveillance.

Case in point, the Jean Chrétien Liberal government had just announced a substantial increase in the Canada Council for the Arts budget.

I followed up the increase with a call to the council, looking for a meeting with the board.

A return call came quickly and it was vehemently suggested that a board meeting with the minister would be highly inappropriate, as this could be viewed as political interference in the artists’ granting system.

I explained that I had no intention of interfering with the council’s support choices but wanted to work with them on shaping broad objectives. These included reaching new audiences, supporting aboriginal artists and encouraging cultural business development.

When I went to Cabinet to seek additional funding, I built the rationale for new monies on updating responsibilities for the Canada Council, so I felt a responsibility to deliver.

I then discovered the arm’s length relationship was so distorted that Heritage employees involved in arts funding were not allowed to meet formally with their counterparts at the Canada Council, for fear the council might be influenced by the department.

Instead, the parties would meet surreptitiously in coffee shops, to discuss duplication and avoid double bureaucracy.

During my watch, we worked to change the nature of the arm’s length relationship.

I initiated quarterly meetings for all crown corporations under the authority of my department. Most Crown agencies had never actually even met before, and these quarterly meetings encouraged cross-pollination on projects, ideas and exchanges. The meetings ended up maximizing the cultural bang for our buck without compromising artistic freedom.

Most Crown corporations operate in a vacuum, with little real oversight.

The Standards Council of Canada is just such an organization.

It’s website says it is answerable to the minister of industry and manages the process of standardization in Canada. SCC-accredited organizations are responsible for the development, publication and maintenance of national standards. Regarding the development of voluntary international standards; SCC is involved with the International Standardization Organization (ISO) as well as with the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC).

Similarly, Canada’s involvement with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) falls under the responsibility of Industry Canada. It is also important to note that SCC is involved with the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC). This commission is managed by an interdepartmental committee consisting of senior officials from Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. These are enormous health and safety responsibilities for an organization that operates with minimal parliamentary scrutiny.

Last year, the SCC sought and received exemption from a number of reporting requirements that have been standard practice for all crown corporations. A business client of mine applied under freedom of information laws for all documents involved in that decision.

Last week, he received a package of material including three heavily redacted documents. One was five pages from the vice-president of accreditation at the council. With the exception of the cover page, all material was completely blacked out.

The other documents included more than 30 pages of totally redacted material. Only the cover pages were visible.

The SCC is blatantly ignoring transparency in Canadian standard setting. What else could justify hiding dozens of pages of material from public?

The creaming of Crown corporations for outrageous part-time per diems is certainly worthy of public attention.

An equally important subject for parliamentary scrutiny is the culture of secrecy rampant at the Crown corporation setting Canadian safety and health standards.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.