Government accountability and stuffed cats

One of our kids’ favourite books was about a little girl who wanted a cat. The plot is pretty simple: a young girl wants a cat and pleads with her parents to get her one. She leaves pictures of cats all over the house, dresses up as a cat, and eventually will only eat fish and say meow. But all these efforts to get a feline friend fail. The parents are resolute, pointing out how lucky this little girl is to have all of her books, her bike, her toy train set. Then one day, out of the blue, Mom and Dad show up with a cat-sized box. The little girl is delirious with anticipation, but when the box is opened, it’s only a stuffed toy cat. You can imagine the daughter’s reaction – not cool.

That’s how I felt last week when government made the announcement on the appointment of a Child Commissioner and Advocate. For as long as I’ve been an MLA, there have been repeated calls from both opposition parties for the establishment of an independent office of a Child and Youth advocate. We asked nicely, we asked pointedly, we asked repeatedly, but at every turn we were told that PEI – the only province in Canada not to have an independent child advocate’s office - was doing just fine without one. And we weren’t the only people promoting such a position – the Campbell- Hennessey inquest jury and the Advisory Council on the Status of Women had both specifically and vigorously asked for exactly the same thing.

The government announcement about the appointment of this new position is lacking in three specific ways.

  1. There is no legislation in place to give this new office the authority and independence it needs to do its job properly. What makes the Office of the Child Advocate so effective and free of influence is its independence. Every other province has set up the office in this way, ensuring that the Child Advocate has freedom to analyse and if necessary criticise government policies and actions. Making our commissioner and advocate an arm of government makes this far less likely to happen.
  2. There was no open, merit-based process used to find the best person for the job. In this regard it is hauntingly similar to what happened when Clifford Lee was announced last year as the Housing Co-ordinator. Our office requested, through the Freedom of Information process, documentation around the hiring process for Mr. Lee. After five months of waiting we received precisely nothing beyond an oddly redacted employment contract. Here we have two individuals heading up initiatives dealing with critically important issues, and in both cases they were hand picked by the Premier.
  3. This episode is emblematic of how the MacLauchlan government behaves: something that appears on the surface to be a legitimate response to either public pressure or political opposition is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. It is a façade of action, a hologram, a veiled costume concealing inaction. It is a stuffed cat.

 

Time and again this administration’s promise of openness and accountability, when turned into reality has disappointed. Whether it is anemic whistleblower and lobbyist legislation, unwillingness to act on recommendations of other independent bodies of the legislature such as the Chief Electoral Officer or Conflict of Interest Commissioner, or its preference to use our Freedom of Information legislation to block access to documents that should be freely available, the MacLauchlan government has consistently made a lofty promise and delivered a half-hearted response.

I should say that the ending of the book about the girl and the cat is as satisfying and funny as it is unexpected. I think that the vast majority of Islanders want a government that is truly open, responsive and accountable, and I hope they won’t be fooled by this latest example of a thoroughly unsatisfying response to a longstanding unified call to enhance protections for our most vulnerable citizens. Let’s write a proper ending to this particular story: the children of PEI deserve something better than a stuffed cat.