The Bev Oda “not” scandal

Another government scandal is brewing, cooked up by entitlement seekers and the opposition. KAIROS, an aid organization with a penchant for getting involved in the politics of the Israel/Palestinian conflict understandably are upset that their $7 million dollar funding from the government of Canada was cut. Of course, it is the government’s prerogative to fund and defund what it likes with respect to aid agencies via CIDA, however, someone didn’t dot the i’s and cross the t’s in the appropriate manner. Or, is this much ado about nothing?

When the opposition isn’t complaining about the government following the letter of the law, constitution or otherwise to exert its agenda or “play politics”, they complain that the government doesn’t follow the “spirit” of the same (cf prorogation). Or they disagree with the fundamentals of the decision and mire everyone in the details and cry “technical foul” (cf the long-form census decision and recently KAIROS).

The opposition argues that the government can’t make these changes explicitly and “hides” behind bureaucrats to provide cover for their decisions. The Liberals sought to illustrate this with Munir Sheikh’s advice regarding the long-form census and now with CIDA’s advice to Bev Oda. It is within the government’s right to accept or deny the advice of bureaucrats and act as they wish, however, Sheikh’s resignation exposed a rift in what was being said about advice from bureaucrats and what advice was actually given.

The Liberals would like to build a narrative that such practice is the norm by this government, however, with the defunding of KAIROS, they are reaching; no deception exists. Clearly, penning in “NOT” to modify a document set in computer typeface, is not going to fool anyone if one’s intention was to mislead as to what the advice of bureaucrats had been to Bev Oda.

So, what is the context here and what have we learned in recent days?

Minister Oda received the memo regarding the President of CIDA’s advice regarding the funding of KAIROS. The government explains that Oda receives hundreds of pieces of paper to manage and sign every day and that she was traveling that day. An autopen signature was used at her authorization on the memo however given the urgency of a decision that waited on the KAIROS funding file, her input could not easily be integrated. She insists and maintains that she does not know who affixed the “NOT” to the document because it was one of her staff and she wasn’t in the office, however, her staff knew the position of the minister and the memo did not reflect it. Since the memo was autopenned, it follows that a ministerial staffer may have also included the “NOT” at the same time.

So is this indeed a technical foul, or a technical limitation of the process by which the Minister reviews documents? Did Minister Oda misrepresent the position of her bureaucrats as the Liberals are trying to portray? Watch the following CBC report to understand the swirling narrative in Ottawa in the past week but keep watching to understand the omitted/neglected context of this story.

Did Milewski not realize that Biggs’ testimony was relevant? Or was the audio file from committee cut and emailed to Milewski by those that have wrapped a nice bow around this story for journalist consumption?

Clearly, Margaret Biggs sees nothing untowards regarding what happened. In fact, here is her testimony from that same committee:

Ms. Margaret Biggs (President of CIDA): Yes, I think as the minister said, the agency did recommend the project to the minister. She has indicated that. But it was her decision, after due consideration, to not accept the department’s advice.

This is quite normal, and I certainly was aware of her decision. The inclusion of the word “not” is just a simple reflection of what her decision was, and she has been clear. So that’s quite normal.

I think we have changed the format for these memos so the minister has a much clearer place to put where she doesn’t want to accept the advice, which is her prerogative.

Cabinet is allowed to disregard the advice of bureaucrats but Liberals contend this is part of a standoffish attitude of this government that doesn’t reflect the “values” that Canadians wish to see in their governments. However, why do Liberals now ignore the same bureaucrat and her testimony that she was not mislead, her position not misrepresented, and that this rather represents a limitation — now addressed — of a Minister’s ability to provide input on memos?

Here’s an interesting account from a former Liberal ministerial aide (do read the whole thing):

Minister Oda is asked an oral question by Mr. Francis Valeriote (L-Guelph). The question is here. This question is about, again, the difference between CIDA priorities and government priorities, and what constitutes a final decision. Just to be clear – every recommendation or “decision” a public service department makes is NOT FINAL, nor can it be called a Department Decision until the Minister signs off on it. Mr. Valeriote’s assertion that funding KAIROS was aligned with CIDA’s bureaucrats’ country program objectives is true, but also is it true that funding KAIROS does not meet the government’s objectives (where government is Cabinet in the person of Minister Oda). There is no contradiction. Mr. Valeriote is just upset that the Minister gets to win, because she’s the Minister.

…[this is] simply the opposition being the opposition and likely purposefully not picking up on the nuances of the two statements that appear contradictory but that are both true.

The Minister SIGNED OFF on disagreeing with the bureaucrats’ recommendation as shown by the insertion of the “NOT”. The Minister, while on the phone with a group of her staffers, directed the NOT to be inserted, but did not physically do it herself, and does not know which one of the staffers did it. She did not lie. She answered very precisely and correctly.

1. CIDA bureaucrats have “country program objectives”. These do not necessarily jive with the government’s objectives for foreign aid. Check.
2. CIDA bureaucrats recommended KAIROS to the Minister through a signed document that left no room for the Minister to disagree. The latter has been a problem for a few years and the bureaucrats should’ve stopped pre-supposing agreement and left space for the Minister to disagree a long time ago. The bureaucrats finally get the message and change the way they send decision documents to the Minister. Check.
3. The Minister disagreed after 2 months of weighing her options as is her prerogative. Check.
4. The Minister, while away from her office and needing to make a decision, directed her staff to indicate such disagreement and auto-pen it, thus ending funding for KAIROS. Check.
5. LIKELY: KAIROS freaks out and goes to their MPs to ask WTF. Check.
6. Liberal members who are in opposition start asking questions that are meant to meet their own political objectives in a greater narrative of transparency and accountability. Check.
PROBLEM: There is no issue with transparency and accountability in this particular instance.
7. Minister Oda answers questions in QP and before a committee based on the “government” being cabinet in her person, and “CIDA decisions” are only real when she signs off and is very precise as a seasoned politician should be. Check.

WHERE IS THE PROBLEM?? There is simply no contempt here. I’d LOVE to find it. But I cannot. The reasons for de-funding KAIROS are the government’s prerogative, and so what if the Prime Minister directed the Minister to disagree? He’s allowed to do that too – he sets the agenda.

Also, if this is the stuff the Liberals are counting on to win an election, we’re toast.

Some other questions to consider:

– should government be providing funding to agencies to outsource its efforts and activities?
– if so, should these agencies be counter to the objectives of the government?
– is this another effort of the Liberals to build a narrative of scandal “a culture of deceit”? Remember wafergate? H1N1?
– do we need a clearer understanding of the roles of bureaucrats and of the roles and mandates of elected officials in the decision making process?
– when stories are packaged nicely for journalists, is it not dangerous to report on a unbalanced production?
– the Conservatives took days to respond with an accounting of what they understood to have occurred, but is simply the response rate of the accused?
– a news report is not always a “report of the facts”, unfortunately this happens too often as tipsters always have an agenda. This was certainly an agenda driven story, not one dug up by the CBC. In the current climate of breaking political news, how can we convey a better understand that news stories are always developing and not a final report of an event?