Hon. John McKay PC, MP Speech to the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation on Bill C-293 - Canmore, Alberta, Sept. 19, 2009


Hon. John McKay PC, MP speech to the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation AGM -
Canmore, Alberta,
 September 19, 2009

The journey of a Private Members’ Bill is always long and arduous, so much so that at times giving up would have been a blessed relief. Yet it’s folks like you – literally thousands and tens of thousands who get behind an idea and keep on pushing so that an idea becomes law.

So it was with C-293 “An Act respecting the provision of official development assistance abroad.” I thought that it had died at least a dozen times over the 2 ½ years, but each time is was at deaths door something would happen to keep it going. I remember sitting in my office one day and wondering how we were going to get to the next stage when I received a telephone call from this bright, perky 20 something who described herself as the President of Engineers Without Borders and that they wanted to get behind C-293 and how could they help. She had no idea that just phoning was a great lift for me and I will be eternally grateful to her. But not only was she bright and perky but she also delivered big as did thousands of others.

At one stage we were having difficulty getting it off the floor of the Senate and into Committee. My friend Gerry Barr of CCIC saw Senator Hugh Segal in the Ottawa airport. Figuring that he had nothing to lose Gerry went up to Senator Segal and asked how we could get the Bill moving again. Senator Segal replied that that he had been getting a considerable number of letters and emails from remarkably erudite grade 4 students who seemed to have a very impressive knowledge of C-293 and that he would see what he could do. It cost me a breakfast but ultimately Senator Segal was very helpful.

C-293 received Royal Assent in May of 2008. Ultimately it was unanimously accepted by the House as amended and in a neat little ceremony in the Chamber of a Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada became the law of the land. You would think that that should be it – it’s the law – end of story – adjust your policies and programs and move on. I wish that I could say that’s true. If it was I wouldn’t be here today and you wouldn’t have given me the topic: “Now we have it, what do we do with it?”

Being the sceptical fellow that I am I bought supper at the Parliamentary Restaurant in June 2008 for representatives of all the major groups that had helped in the journey. We had reason to believe that there would be some resistance to implementation and it has proven to be correct.

Summer becomes fall and Mr. Harper thinks that we should have an election –

• This one is necessary;
• but one this fall is not;
• 4 in 8 years is necessary but not 5 in 9;

Mr. Harper seems to prefer even numbers over odd numbers unless of course the odds are stacked in his favour so notwithstanding an election law to the contrary were off to the polls.

The election happens and Mr. Harper almost gets what he covets the most – a majority. The big M. Shortly after the election CIDA has a big “pow wow” with its major “stakeholders.” “Stakeholders” is Ottawa bureaucratise for dependent children. On the podium is the President of CIDA, former Ambassador Heinbecker, a British guy and one other person. In the Q & A following I think that it’s appropriate to ask about the implementation of C-293. There’s much squirming in the audience among the “children dependent on the largess of CIDA.” What follows is something out of a Monty Python sketch. Ambassador Heinbecker denounces C-293 as the stupidest legislation ever and it will handcuff the Minister and government from pursuing what is in Canada’s best interests. The Brit denounces Heinbecker’s analysis and says that similar legislation in Great Britain has not impaired Britain’s ability to act in its best interests. So the two of them get into this verbal slugfest and the President of CIDA is left to clean up the mess with an answer so bland and so innocuous as to suggest that it is simultaneously her highest priority and that she would rather be tortured by Saddam Hussein himself than let C-293 see the light of day (I exaggerate a touch). I had trouble stopping myself from laughing out loud. Being the proverbial skunk at the garden party I left it to others to deal with the odour.

We have been exchanging correspondence with the President and Minister with much mutual “eye rolling” but no discernable change or even recognition. My allies on this Don Quixote-like quest have been Keith Martin and Glen Pearson. We have had a session with the bureaucrats and a lovely power point presentation which appeared to show 293 being implemented at a program level. When asked whether programs drive policy or policy drives programs there was much disclaimer about good intentions but “no the policy hasn’t changed.”

So fast forward to Minister Oda’s big press release in February ’09. Apparently the Minister wants to make aid more effective. Who can be against more effective aid? Her proposal is to drop some desperately poor countries like Malawi in Africa and refocus on some less desperately poor countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean. As the speech and press release helpfully note, the Western hemisphere is our sphere of influence and we have more advantageous trading alliances which could be expanded.

Now I’m all in favour of working your sphere of influence and improving trading relationships. Lord knows that Mr. Harper has presided over a precipitous decline in our role on the world stage – but (and it’s a big but) that’s not what the Development Assistance Accountability Act says. The only legislated mandate for our Official Development Assistance and therefore CIDA and therefore the Government of Canada says:

“2. (1) The purpose of this Act is to ensure that all Canadian official development assistance abroad is provided with a central focus on poverty reduction and in a manner that is consistent with Canadian values, Canadian foreign policy, sustainable development and democracy promotion and that promotes international human rights standards.”

and that:

“4. (1) Official development assistance may be provided only if the competent minister is of the opinion that it (a) contributes to poverty reduction;   (b) takes into account the perspectives of the poor; and (c) is consistent with international human rights standards.”

Now I invite you to review the Minister’s press release and speech. You will not find a word about poverty alleviation, consulting the poor, or consistency with human rights standards. Not a word. This money is for poor people – it’s not there to enhance our trade or expand our sphere of influence – it’s for poor people.
This concept is clearly lost on the PM and the Minister.

It’s quite disturbing really. A law passed unanimously by Parliament completely ignored by those persons charged with applying the law. We’re in Alberta. Law and order are big concepts out here I’m told. If the police or judges routinely ignored laws that they don’t like we would have a recipe for disaster. CIDA has no other legislated mandate. It is entirely driven by the policies of the day. Report after report after report speaks to the ineffectiveness of our aid – the wastefulness – the continuous changing of priorities – the lack of focus yet we have a government completely ignoring the will of Parliament. To dress this latest press release as part of an “aid effectiveness agenda” is a little like putting lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig and no amount of lipstick will change the arrogance of the government.

So is all hope lost? Are we just flapping our gums? September 30th is report card day for the Minister. Section 5(1) requires that a report be tabled in Parliament 6 months after the end of each fiscal year.

The Department has developed a fondness for roundtables. Three of them in Ottawa and a bunch elsewhere. The Minister is supposed to show that she has consulted widely (4(2)). The three themes are food security, economic development and children and youth. Now I’m all in favour of food security, economic development and children and youth but where did these come from? Why not a host of others? Why any at all? Where is the logic? Is there any logic or are these just random themes? If there is a logical connection to C-293 tell us because it’s not obvious.

My inside sources tell me that the consultations are intended to be pro forma among “friendlies.” He who pays the piper calls the tune. Unfortunately for the Minister however, at the first roundtable the process went off script when someone said “we are here because of C-293 and no one has mentioned a word about it.” Thereafter the bureaucrats worked the language of C-293 into every comment no matter how innocuous.

Now I’m one of those strange people that likes Ottawa. I know that it’s a national pass-time here and elsewhere to bash Ottawa and hate Toronto but you know when you go to those nice roundtables in Ottawa you won’t find one poor person. Not one. You might have to step over a few to get into the building but you will not find one poor person at any of these meetings.

Now ordinarily this is not a problem – rich people are always good at telling poor people what to do and how to behave. I do it myself. It’s called Western arrogance. On September 30th will the Minister be able to demonstrate that she has taken into account the “perspectives of the poor” as section 4(1)(b) of the Act requires? Did she make any effort to talk to any poor people anywhere? Did they tell her that these three themes were from their perspective?

I am told that the bureaucrats actually like 293 but the Minister has given them marching orders to ignore it. CIDA staff like it because it gives clarity and focus and restores CIDA to an appropriate role within government. C-293 gives a mandate a focus and within the realm of ODA paramountcy (?). Now they get to tell Finance, Foreign Affairs, Defence, etc., that they have to submit their reports to CIDA and then CIDA will report to Parliament. It’s a focus, a purpose, a mandate. A reason to get out of bed in the morning and try to make the world a better place. Naive it may be – but a big improvement on the status quo.

I remember spending a day with our High Commissioner in Malawi. She was an old CIDA hand. I asked her if she would start at CIDA again if she had to do it all over again. Her response was quite pithy for a diplomat and can’t be repeated in public.

Maybe, just maybe, CIDA doesn’t have to continue to drift and alienate good people.

Just before putting the finishing touches on this speech I received a reply to my question on the Order Paper submitted June 17, 2009 and responded to on September 14, 2009.

In the category of small victories CIDA has apparently (a) reviewed strategic documents (b) developed a consultation directive for employees (c) held two independent meetings (d) increased consultation abroad and (e) over the next few months will engage stakeholders “insupport of the development of strategies for CIDA’s thematic ‘priorities.’” There you have it – CIDA’s thematic priorities. So does that mean “we only do poverty reduction if it fits within thematic priorities? So thematic priorities trump poverty reduction.

The response goes on to say that the act is already fully integrated into CIDA’s current programming. “Progress has been made and CIDA is currently in compliance with the Act.”

Well I guess that’s it. We can all go home – put our feet up and feel good about ourselves.
One of the delights in being an M.P. is that you get to ask rude and obnoxious questions at awkward moments. I rather hope that I will have that opportunity when the Minister presents her report to the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Meanwhile, I have been using my mini “bully pulpit” on the Finance Committee to ask various NGOs pointed questions about their observations of CIDA’s activities on the file. Have they noticed any change in policy or programs in the last year? Chris Dendys of RESULTS Canada replied:

“In terms of your direct question about Bill C-293, I have not seen a noticeable difference. I know that there's a commitment on the part of CIDA to focus on thematic priorities. There are discussion and speeches about focusing on the poorest of the poor, which is what the bill lays out about having a poverty focused aid agenda, which is absolutely crucial. So in terms of actually seeing it roll out into the ground and roll out into implementation, I haven't seen the results of that. I suppose that would require some more digging.” (Finance Committee hearings, September 17, 2009)

Mr. John Julian, Director of International Communication and Policy for the Canadian Co-operative Association replied:

“At this point, it's difficult to comment on that. Our programming is mostly long-term and multi-year. We haven't seen any immediate changes. However, I would say that we, like you, are very much looking forward to the end of this reporting period and the first report back from CIDA and the government on Canada's development assistance program. As the Development Assistance Accountability Act enshrines, our organization is very much committed to the idea that Canada's official development assistance should be about poverty alleviation, first and foremost. We're anxious to see the proof that in fact that's been enshrined and that we're moving in that direction.”(Finance Committee hearings, September 16, 2009)

Their responses are consistent with my observations. I am not particularly upset with CIDA staff. They must obey their political masters. They have no choice. I am however, irritated with this pretentious government. All that work – all the efforts of thousands of Canadians – all the time – yet the government stonewalls not only Canadians, but more importantly the world’s poor.

So to zero back in on your question “Now we have it, what do we do with it?” in my view we have no choice. C-293 is way better than nothing which is what we had before. But people like yourselves still have to drive this bus. If irritating MPs like me have no back-up the Minister will be even more brazen. If you don’t demand accountability it will never happen. We are far from home but there will be some victories along the way – small and large. C-293 is already driving some form of timely accountability. It’s six months after the fiscal year end and things are happening. The previous standard was two years.

All I can say is keep on keeping on.

Thank you.

Hon. John McKay PC, MP