The train wreck of the Missing Women inquiry in Vancouver once again raises the question of whether this process—in the words of former Supreme Court justice Willard Estey—has been “abused beyond usefulness.” Estey spoke those words in the mid-1990s, after the federal government shut down the inquiry into actions of Canadian soldiers in Somalia.
Yet the appetite for this unique blend of justice and theatre lives on. Democracy Watch, the Ottawa-based government accountability group, maintains on its website a list of 18 “questionable situations” in federal affairs, whose only remedy, they say, are public inquiries.
One hates to differ with organizations dedicated to accountability. They’re so rare. But a quick calculation reveals that Ottawa has spent nearly $200 million on seven inquiries of national import, dating back to the early 1990s:
• Somalia, $25 million
• Tainted blood, $15 million
• Arar, $27 million
• Air India, $30 million
• Dziekanski, $4.5 million
• Schreiber-Mulroney, $16 million
• Gomery, (take a breath) $80 million
This total does not include compensation for victims. In some cases, it does not include legal costs incurred to the taxpayer such as counsel for impugned public officials.
Nor does it include the cost policy-based royal commissions like the $15-million Romanow Report on health care, or provincial ones like the inquiry into sexual abuse in Cornwall, Ont., whose $53 million price tag forced the Ontario government to rethink its entire inquiry process (Dziekanski was called by provincial authorities, yet involved federal agencies like the RCMP and border services).
So. Are we getting our money’s worth?
In a few cases, like the Krever inquiry into tainted blood and Arar, the cost seems bearable, if not a bargain. Victims and their families get their say. Meaningful change stands in plain view. From time to time, heads roll.
In others, not so much. Anyone who figured the Gomery Inquiry would send a jolt of rectitude through political circles has long since been set straight by the “in-out” scandal, or the Harper government’s G20 spending extravaganza.
Moreover, these days, internal controversy or questions of fairness tend to overshadow an inquiry’s road map to reform. Yes, there’s always a vague hope that the exercise will serve as a warning to the negligent and venal in the future. But as the Missing Women case illustrates, that hope is fragile. From this point on, the inquiry led by Wally Oppal is itself on probation. Its next lapse might well condemn it to irrelevance.
That’s not to throw the whole model overboard. Like democracy, it’s the worst system except for all the others. Still, with public dollars in short supply, it could use fixes—greater reliance on reports rather than testimony; less reliance on lawyers; limits on legal fees.
Governments, meanwhile, would do well to ponder before commissioning their next set of proceedings: under what circumstances do inquiries materially change the behaviour of individuals and institutions? Do those circumstances apply in the case at hand? Is the matter best left to the courts?
Last but not least, do you, as a government, really need a specially commissioned judge to tell you to do the right thing?