A sad lack of accountability on F-35s and transportation safety

In case you’re not Canadian or haven’t seen any news at all this week, the Auditor General released a report in which he blasts the Department of National Defence and Transport Canada. The Canada Revenue Agency also received criticism, but not quite as blistering.

Andrew Coyne has some spot-on comments about the government’s obviously conscious attempt to deceive Parliament and Canadians about the costs of the F-35, so I won’t repeat what he’s said – just go to the link below. Remember that he’s a right-leaning journalist, too, so if he’s damning, well, it’s got to be bad. (I have great respect for his work and commentary, by the way.)

I would simply add that while I believe that the Tories are complicit in this cover-up (and let’s be honest – how different would the Chrétien Liberals have been?) it’s the role of bureaucrats that I have greatest concern about. These people are supposed to be sober, neutral and honest. If anyone is going to take the big risks, it’s supposed to be the politicians.

But clearly they’re not. Clearly, that role of the bureaucracy has been undermined. And I don’t think that it’s just the fault of the Conservatives (and the Liberals before them). It’s a role that bureaucrats have themselves embraced. It’s much easier to get promoted if the Minister never has anything bad to say about your work, after all. And what better way to assure that than to blindly follow the Minister’s wishes?

What should happen, in a decent system of accountability, is that people should be fired. Politicians that should go are Rona Ambrose, Peter MacKay, and Julian Fantino. Deputy Ministers should also be fired: Robert Fonberg, Deputy Minister of National Defence, and François Guimont, Deputy Minister of Public Works – not to mention a number of assistant deputy ministers, directors general and others who actively participated. But that won’t happen for two reasons:

  1. Senior bureaucrats never get fired, they simply get moved to a new job once the storm has passed, and
  2. Because it would be tantamount to an admission that things had gone, really, really wrong. Which neither the government nor the senior bureaucrats are willing to do.

And as long as that’s the case, accountability in the federal public service will be a joke. And, as a knock-on effect, the work done by the public service will decline in quantity and quality.

I’m also disappointed (but not at all surprised) about the findings about Transport Canada’s failure to properly fulfill its aviation safety mandate. Thomas Walkom (in his column linked below) makes a good point that this is the bigger story than the F-35 debacle. His reasoning, which I agree with, is that it shows just how much the government is washing it’s hands of one of its basic functions – ensuring the safety and security of the public. This is an ideological position, one that the Liberals also held (they initiated the moves to self-regulation).

I’d just like to add that the marine side is just as bad and probably worse. It gets less scrutiny, perhaps because there are fewer passengers compared to cargo traffic, but rest assured that a lot is at stake there as well. I blew the whistle on marine security about 6 years ago, and while some steps have been taken to close gaps, the root problems remain.

And what are those problems, you ask? Well, they include:

  • Inexpert and abusive management which suppresses dissenting opinion,
  • Regulatory capture by industry (that is, they pretty much direct what the department does),
  • An unwillingness and inability (due to a lack of inspectors) to enforce regulations vigorously, and
  • Significant regulatory gaps.

But until someone actually dies or something blows up, it’s unlikely to get much attention.

This legacy can be laid at the feet of Marc Grégoire, who now runs the Canadian Coast Guard (despite not knowing a bow from a brow) in probably much the same abusive manner he did Safety and Security at Transport. His mantle has been taken up by another bloated bureaucrat, Laureen Kinney, a dog breeder whose expertise in the field includes radio operation and 30 years of bum in seat. This is a woman who once thought it okay to adjudicate a grievance against herself and has been reported to make threats against anyone who wasn’t with her program – quite a piece of work. More than one of her current and former subordinates has predicted that we’ll end up with a smoking hole in the ground and 200+ dead passengers on her watch.

But until that happens, the F-35 will hold the accountability spotlight.

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Conservatives scramble to save face over fighter-jet plan
Globe and Mail, April 3, 2012
Summary: The Harper government is scrambling to salvage its reputation for sound fiscal management after the Auditor-General tore into its multibillion-dollar plan for stealth fighter jets, a project that the Conservatives have championed since coming to power in 2006.

Auditor general: Transport Canada not up to speed on airline safety inspections
Ottawa Citizen, April 3, 2012
Summary: Transport Canada failed to conduct planned inspections of about 500 airlines and other aviation companies that could be “higher risk” operations, Canada’s auditor general found.

Auditor general: Tax cheats going undetected by revenue agency
Calgary Herald, April 3, 2012
Summary: The Canada Revenue Agency is unable to adequately assess and track potentially millions of tax cheats in the country because of limited resources along with weak oversight and enforcement practices, according to a new report from the federal auditor general.

Walkom: Harper’s air-safety lapses scarier than F-35 cock-up
Toronto Star, April 4, 2012
Summary: The most dramatic revelation from Canada’s auditor general is the story of the F-35 cock-up. No question. But the most worrying — and telling — portion of Tuesday’s report by Michael Ferguson is his description of the Conservative government’s chillingly casual approach to air safety. Casual because this government has no use for regulation and is going out of its way to cut what it calls red tape. Chilling because when governments don’t bother to regulate air safety, planes crash.

Coyne: F-35 debacle demonstrates a system of government in collapse
Montreal Gazette, April 5, 2012
Summary: There are so many layers of misconduct in the F-35 affair that it is difficult to know where to start.

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