By Karen Kleiss, Edmonton JournalEDMONTON—Conservative leadership candidates are responding to Albertans’ growing intolerance for government secrecy with a slate of proposals for new and stronger transparency laws.Candidate Ted Morton on Thursday called for democratic renewal in Alberta through a strengthening of the auditor general’s office, bolstering the watchdog’s ability to root out and report on corruption and waste.His call follows that of rival candidate Alison Redford, who has committed to passing whistleblower protection laws and beefing up access to information rules.The two are among six candidates vying to lead the Progressive Conservative party, which has ruled the province for nearly four decades and has come under heavy attack for creating a culture of secrecy, undermining access to information and using fear and intimidation to discourage public servants from stepping forward.“The natural tendency of all governments is to be secretive, particularly when they’ve been accused of waste or inefficiency. That’s why you have auditors general, that’s why you build institutional checks and balances,” Morton said.He has committed to a reviewing both the legislation that governs the auditor general’s work and the funding provided to the office. The goal is to ensure the auditor has whatever resources needed to keep government accountable.While director of policy for the Canadian Alliance in 2001, Morton heard rumours of corruption in a Quebec sponsorship program and filed an access to information request with the federal government. The documents were released, but were heavily blacked out. Auditor General Sheila Fraser accessed the unredacted records and issued a scathing report that triggered the $14-million Gomery Inquiry, which is thought to have contributed to the downfall of Paul Martin’s Liberal government.Morton on Thursday also committed to a host of democratic reforms, including fixed election dates, term limits for the premier and opening up the discussion on other opportunities for direct democracy, such as allowing grassroots organizations to put referendum questions on election ballots if they can collect enough signatures.“If we don’t modernize our democracy in Alberta there are other parties — like the Liberals, like the Alberta Party, like the Wildrose — that will make these kinds of reforms, and they will find an audience in Alberta voters,” Morton said.“We can’t afford to be the party of the status quo.”Redford was the first leadership candidate to make democratic reforms an issue in the race, and has committed to introducing whistleblower protection laws for public servants who want to come forward to expose inefficiency or corruption.“The first thing we need to do is empower public servants,” Redford said. “We need to put legislation in place to ensure that people feel that when they come forward, their jobs are protected“As a government, we should not be afraid of criticism.”Redford has also committed to introducing a law that would make it mandatory for all leadership candidates to tell the public who paid for their campaigns. She has also committed to strengthening the freedom of information system.“We have traditions and institutions that people around the world are sacrificing their lives to get for themselves,” Redford said. “If people don’t trust the institutions we have, we begin to undermine democracy. The way we ensure people can trust those institutions…is to make sure they get the access they need to understand what’s going on in those institutions.”Bill Moore-Kilgannon is executive director of Public Interest Alberta, a non-profit and non-partisan organization that advocates for democratic renewal.“Democratic renewal is important because many people feel disconnected from politics and feel their voice is not being heard,” Moore-Kilgannon said.“In Alberta the government has put huge resources into the Public Affairs Bureau, and has really centralized and controlled the message over the past few decades. Only the information the government wants to get out, gets out,” he said.“There are many sectors that are terrified to speak out about what is going on. Without strong whistleblower protection, that information is never going to come forward.”Auditor General Merwan Saher said he thinks his office has a mandate and powers that are as broad as other Canadian auditors general, and if he needed more funding he would ask for it.He said the public shouldn’t compare audits from different jurisdictions, and if Alberta’s audits are not as sensational as others it is because the provincial government has good systems in place.“One has to remember that what is being reported has a direct correlation with…the government that is being audited. So that I don’t think one can jump to the conclusion that comparing outputs from offices is indicative of the mandates that they have,” Saher said.“Comparing outputs is more indicative perhaps, or is certainly influenced by, the quality of the government systems and process that are being audited.”
By Karen Kleiss, Edmonton Journalkkleiss@edmotonjournal.comThis article was published in the Edmonton Journal on May 26, 2011. Read the full article on the Edmonton Journal website.