Governments shouldn't be able to investigate themselves

// Gurpreet Kambo

Government inquiries seem to be all the rage these days – it seems you can’t turn a corner on the information superhighway without running into a missing women’s this, or a G20 that. Should it matter to me, or any other average working person? In theory, yes it should. Many of these inquiries are a result of mismanagement and incompetence by the government itself or related organizations (such as the police). Often how this ends is in a public outcry for an inquiry into the situation, which is then run by the government – the same body that either committed the wrong, or oversees the body that did.

The problem here is that the government is deciding the scope and terms of reference for an investigation into itself, and it makes one wonder if there is really an incentive to find out the truth. It has largely been established that police investigating police is suspect, and problematic; for example, the Robert Djiekanski taser fiasco severely hurt the public trust in both the police, and public inquiry process, due to the video that appeared to show a clear use of excessive force by the police officers, which they were subsequently cleared of.

However, the issue of government investigating government is not something that received as much commentary, though the problem is the same – why would the government want to make itself look bad? Why would they want to shake the confidence the public has in them if they don’t have to?

The issue is further compounded by the machinations of the political process itself. In a nutshell, an elected official would be very unlikely to implement a real and meaningful inquiry into any scandalous situations that arose during his or her term. The political hamster wheel runs on a four-year cycle (or three-year, for municipal politics), after which politicians need to campaign to get themselves re-elected. If something goes wrong in those years, in the eyes of the public, an elected politician’s head will have to be on the block. In real terms, that means that that elected official or officials shall not be re-elected (or if they are smart they won’t even try). If I’m a good “politician”, I’m going to downplay or shift responsibility for any bad things that happened, and take credit for all the good things. In a situation such as this, what interest would a politician have in exposing the real truth?

Currently, the missing women’s inquiry, chaired by former judge and provincial politician Wally Oppal, is big news, and has been a lightning rod of controversy for quite a while. Most signifigantly, a great many of the advocacy organizations that were involved have withdrawn in protest. This is largely due to the lack of funding that was offered for these groups for legal representation – despite the fact that the provincial government and police will have their own teams of lawyers there.

In this instance, it appears to be sabotage by the government, as the testimony provided by these groups would be shredded by the government’s lawyers without any legal expertise on the other side. Furthermore, the government did not guarantee legal immunity for those testifying, as a result some individuals who may have important information will not testify, for fear of being prosecuted.

The inquiry into the Stanley Cup riots in Downtown Vancouver this past spring are also instructive. Certain politicans and media outlets have tried to characterize this as “Roberton’s Riot” – notably, as the municipal election is coming up.

Many people have noted that mayoral candidate and current Councillor Suzanne Anton of the NPA has taken a consistently aggressive stance against Robertson recently, including on the Stanley Cup riot. During the beginning of the inquiry, she insisted that Robertson himself be investigated due to the event being “run out of his office,” to which Robertson replied by calling it “political grandstanding.”

In this case, they are both correct in a sense. Robertson’s choices in preparation of the event should be questioned (although why this wasn’t entirely obvious is unclear). What is obvious though, is that Anton is grandstanding – and that is the troubling part of this inquiry. Not only is this inquiry prone to the typical political manipulation, it also came before an election, which means all of the issues that are brought to light are going to be spun and manipulated even more than usual.

Furthermore – in what was a mind-boggling revelation – one of the heads of the inquiry, John Furlong, was the CEO of VANOC, the organizing committee of the Vancouver Olympics. In other words, someone who was well-connected among local politicians, worked closely with Liberal Government, and with Robertson – and would appear to be in a conflict of interest when examining the decision-making that led to the riots.

Government inquiries should be considered a sacred process that is unimpeachable by politics, in the same way that the court cases or elections are. Just take a look at some other famous inquiries plagued by similar issues – the Warren Commission on JFK’s assassination, the 9/11 commission, the inquiry into the sponsorship scandal. Perhaps the government needs to set up a truly independent body to investigate both government and police, in the way that Elections Canada runs the elections as an independent body from the government – or maybe Elections Canada could be reconfigured to actually be that investigative body for such public inquiries. To change this process from being the sham that it currently is, the elected officials need to take their hands entirely out of it. The inquiry process is meant to restore public trust when it has been broken by public officials – though I’m afraid all it does is make it look like everyone’s in on the conspiracy.

// Gurpreet Kambo, News Editor
// Illustration by Miles Chic

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