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Interview with Democracy Watch coordinator Duff Conacher

Graham F. Scott

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Duff ConacherIt’s been a while since we’ve posted a new entry in the Verbatim series, the transcripts we provide of our Listen to This podcast. (Just a reminder that you can catch new, original interviews every other Monday—you can subscribe with any podcast listening program by grabbing the podcast rss feed, or easily subscribing through iTunes.)

In today’s Verbatim entry, Nick Taylor-Vaisey interviews Duff Conacher, coordinator of Democracy Watch, one of Ottawa’s leading non-partisan advocate groups. With their slogan “the system is the scandal,” Democracy Watch aims to identify, publicize, and pressure for the closure of legislative loopholes that allow waste, corruption, and abuse of power by elected officials and civil servants. Here, Duff and Nick talk about the lobby culture of Parliament Hill, Democracy Watch’s highly successful media strategy, and Ralph Nader’s pivotal role in starting the group.

As always, the original podcast is freely available for your listening pleasure here.


Nick Taylor-Vaisey: We’re sitting here in an Ottawa office. We’re only a few blocks from Parliament Hill. And you’re a guy who is a government watchdog—government ethics, government accountability…

Duff Conacher: Yes.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: How can you possibly have any work to do these days?

Duff Conacher: [Laughs] Too much, unfortunately, and always have been for the last sixteen-and-a-half years, just because we’ve lacked the resources we really need to do the job. So we’ve just tried to work smart instead of trying to dabble in everything. Usually, if you dabble, you don’t make much change. And instead, we work smart and choose the real avenues where there’s a real opportunity—a window open—to really make change.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: So where are those avenues?

Duff Conacher: Well, the big one now, in terms of policy making, is—it looks like we’re heading towards having another Accountability Act—some way, it being introduced. The Conservative government won’t, because they stated publicly that they believe they’ve cleaned up the federal government with their initial Accountability Act, and are sticking to that, despite all the evidence. The Liberals have pledged it; the NDP and the Bloc have always supported further measures to close loopholes. So likely, it won’t happen until another election. Hopefully, it will happen before, though. All it takes in a minority government is the opposition to cooperate, and they can pass anything they want, because they have a majority of MPs in the House. So that’s the big policy-making initiative. There are 90 loopholes still to close in the government system to make it democratic and accountable.

And then, we’re in the courts, challenging Prime Minister Harper over his election call in September 2008 as a violation of the fixed election-date law.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: There’s a lot of stuff happening this month, as well. Not on the accountability front in policy terms, but in the newspapers, politicians doing all kinds of crazy things—or at least being accused of those things. And the government ethics commissioner has been asked to look into a number of things. She’s chosen not to look into some. What do you think about that stuff? Does that keep you busy, too?

Duff Conacher: Very much so. Essentially, because these loopholes are in the system that allow dishonest, unethical, secretive, unrepresentative and wasteful behaviour, people exploit the loopholes. And so there’s usually a scandal a month or so, and if it’s not at the federal level it’s provincial or municipal, and we get calls on those as well, because we’re really the only group that works on those issues in Canada. And you have media calling, saying ‘what are the actual rules? What are the lines that can’t be crossed? What should the watchdog agencies be doing?’ And so I’ve been very busy working on those, and will continue to be. But what we focus on is that the system is the scandal. And if you close the loopholes, strengthen enforcement and penalties, you’ll discourage more people from doing this stuff. And we won’t have a scandal a month, and hopefully we will have government focusing on what it should be doing, which is solving problems in society instead of being caught up and dealing with all these scandalous activities. You won’t ever stop them, but you’ll discourage a lot more of them if you actually have effective laws and effective enforcement.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: You’ve been doing this since 1994 at Democracy Watch.

Duff Conacher: That’s right.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: And right now, as you say, you’re the only group doing it. Does that surprise you?

Duff Conacher: It surprised us back then, when we started up, that there wasn’t a group already. At that time, 136 years had passed since Canada became a country. And no one ever thought that maybe we should have a group that advocates for democracy in Canada? Yeah, it was surprising then. There are other groups that have started, mostly think tanks that do the odd report. We’re the only real advocacy group, using all the different strategies of being out there, meeting with politicians, getting media coverage, and also going to court if we need to.

Why there isn’t the interest? I don’t know. People have given me different theories, one being that we had the New Democrats start when the whole issue of democratic reform was starting to become really hot in the late 60s and early 70s. They were sort of viewed as the group that would push for this. So we had a third party, unlike in the U.S., for example, that was pushing for these things. But they haven’t pushed very hard, actually. They’ve ignored a lot of issues we’ve taken up.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: But does it say anything about what the Canadian people think? I mean, you are very well informed when it comes to the Federal Accountability Act and a number of other federal pieces of legislation, but what about the laymen and the laywomen from coast to coast? Are they satisfied, do you think, with how things are looking from their end?

Duff Conacher: No. The polls show very clearly the hot button issue is lack of honesty in politics. People get baited with false promises during elections, and then the parties switch. Whichever party wins power breaks the promise and then lies about keeping the promises. And people are very upset about that. It’s the number one hot button government accountability issue; also the ethical behaviour; the secrecy; the waste, of course, because it’s waste of the public’s hard-earned money that they’re forced to pay in taxes; and then lack of representative decisions. You have different slices of the population upset about whatever issue, because they feel the government’s not doing the right thing. So the polls show wide concern, more than 80 percent of Canadians concerned about all of these areas.

The real gap is that they don’t necessarily vote and choose which party to vote on based on just this issue. And since politicians write the rules for themselves and they want to get into power, it sometimes isn’t top of mind for the politicians. And that’s why it’s been slow going and, I think, ignored for so many years. There’s also a general assumption that we were at the top of the world. And we hadn’t really been measured until measurement started in the mid-1990s showing that, actually, many other jurisdictions were way ahead of us on things like open government.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: You are the only group doing this. But I think it goes further than that, because I think, Duff, you are sort of the brand. Democracy Watch is Duff Conacher. And you’re the guy who hold press conferences and berates the government for doing these things. What do you think of that sort of career trajectory, where you’re now Ottawa’s government watchdog when it comes to ethics and accountability?

Duff Conacher: Well, we’re not the only ones on accountability if you talk broadly about it, because lots of groups watch specific decisions; like environmental groups watch decisions on environment, and if they think the process was really bad, they’ll point that out as well as point out that it was a bad decision overall. And we also bring lots of groups together in coalition. We’ve never had resources to have more than myself as a full-time staff person. So people get the impression that I’m the only one doing things, but we’ve had lawyers help us out pro bono; we have lots of volunteers doing research; we have active board members that help with the website and with networking. And as I say, we’ve formed four nationwide coalitions. So it is a bit unfortunate, because people get this impression that I’m the only one doing things and that I am Democracy Watch, but in fact it is an organization. We work with lots of partners, and we have lots of assistance. We have more than 100 citizen groups from across the country involved in our coalitions. They help with financial support and writing letters, and they testify before committees as well. So it is more of a movement, not in terms of financial resources, but in terms of people involved, than it may appear sometimes—because I’m always the one quoted in the media.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: And you are quoted in the media quite a bit.

Duff Conacher: Yeah, that part’s gone well. But that’s part of what we focused on—working smart. We know that the ministers watch the media. We know that opinion makers do. And that influences, over time, voters’ opinions. And so we do focus on making news, so that we get in the headlines. And the way we do that is essentially by doing audits consistently. But also, the politicians generate a lot of news themselves, just because so many of them regularly act dishonestly, unethically, secretively, unrepresentatively or wastefully. So they create the news, and we’re called for our opinion. And because we’re experts on where the lines are and the rules they’re supposed to be following—or just want to point out that, yeah, it’s legal for them to do this but obviously shouldn’t be—we’re often called upon to comment.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: I want to go back to the beginning of this process of watching the government and pointing out unethical behaviour and unaccountable behaviour. It was 1994, I guess, when you and others founded the group. How did that come together?

Duff Conacher: We actually opened the doors in September 1993. And the way that came together was, first of all, inspiration. I worked for Ralph Nader as an intern back in ’86 and ’87, and then went back to law school. I was working on safe drinking water issues with Nader, even though I had done my undergrad in English and had no expertise in the area. He has interns take a fresh look at things, even if they’re not experts. And I knew I wanted to go to law school, and he gave me a direction. I was more interested in his work on good government and corporate responsibility. Democracy Watch also works on, specifically, bank accountability as our major issue in corporate responsibility.

So I went through law school. I was looking for groups in Canada that do this—and didn’t find any. The Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation works a bit on access to information and, of course, the waste issue, but not on the broader issue of democratic reform. And that was really the only group. The Council of Canadians claimed to work on it, but they didn’t specifically focus on democratic reforms. They focused on more substantive issues. And one of the projects I worked on with Nader was a book called Canada Firsts, a compilation of things Canadian have done first or foremost in the world. When I was at his office, that project fell in my lap because I was the only Canadian working there. And it became a number-one bestseller, and he very generously agreed to provide those proceeds as the seed funding for Democracy Watch. And through my work with student groups and others, I’d connected with a few other people and they agreed to be advisers or board members, and we all started it up in the fall of ‘93.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Now, you were a Nader’s Raider. Did you know any other Canadian Nader Raiders?

Duff Conacher: That’s actually how I ended up getting down there. My uncle was a pro hockey player, actually on the last Leafs team to win the Stanley Cup. He knew Ken Dryden. And I had been travelling Central America in ’85—came back and was looking around for something to do with non-profit NGOs, and he just happened to have a conversation with Ken Dryden at the time. Ken Dryden had actually worked for Nader while he was a goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens. He was going through law school—very impressive guy, now a federal MP—and he went down for a summer, which is the off-season for hockey players, and he worked for Nader. So he gave this idea to my uncle, passed it on to me, and I ended up down and working. And I found out then that there were other Canadians who had done the same thing, including one of our advisers who has also helped us out as a lawyer—a guy named David Baker in Toronto. I’ve helped a number of people since that time go down and be interns, including a couple of the founding board members—Aaron Freeman and Craig Forcese. They both did a stint in Nader’s office, as well.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Do you and the other Nader Raiders have a rapport that’s lasted throughout the years? That was 20 years ago – more than 20 years ago.

Duff Conacher: It is now, yeah, it’s true. It’s now 25 years ago this summer that I went down there. It’s a pretty common experience. Nader’s office, the specific one that I worked in that I’ve helped get others down to—Ken Dryden worked in a separate office—a lot of them worked in the same way. But Nader’s office … in a way, it’s kind of his brain. If he has something on his mind, an issue to take on, there are people working on various projects. But the office will mobilize to help a news conference be held any day, and there are usually 10 to 15 different people working on different issue—a fascinating place; lots of leading research and advocacy, and he’s been doing it himself now since ’63, and he started up the group in ’65. For him, it’s been 45 years.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: For you, it’s been a number of years—September of 1993 until now. On your website, you say you’ve made changes to over 100 different democratizing changes to 16 different pieces of federal legislation in six key areas—a number of victories that you’ve claimed. How much of a difference do you think you’ve made. Those are numbers, but just in terms of changing the culture?

Duff Conacher: Well, certainly with ethics, the standards are much higher than they used to be. The rules are stronger, the enforcement is stronger. And so the expectations are higher amongst the public. And I would say also in the area of political finance, there have been major changes that we’ve won, where there’s now a ban on donations from corporations, unions, other organizations. Individuals are limited to a fairly low amount. Those are the two biggest areas.

If we win our case on the fixed-election-date law, that will be a world’s first case, in terms of these kinds of measures—restricting a prime minister in a parliamentary system from calling snap elections. But it’s mainly in the areas of ethics and money in politics on the good government side. And then bank accountability, yeah, we’ve had some effect there as well, in terms of disclosure and some restrictions on what the banks can do. They have to treat customers more fairly. We’ve reduced some of the gouging. It is a big struggle. Politicians write the rules for themselves and also, the bank lobby is the strongest corporate lobby with the most resources of any in the country. But every year we’ve made a few more changes, and as long as you can do that, it’s worth continuing—and rewarding to continue, as well, because you’re actually making change.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: What about that lingering culture in Ottawa where you have pollsters and lobbyists and government relations consultants—whatever they choose to style themselves as—who used to be members of parliament, or used to work for members of parliament, or used to fundraise for political parties, who now work for all of these organizations that are just down the street from the politicians. It’s a very in-crowd, and there’s a lot of influence. Obviously, that’s nothing new. But how can you change that?

Duff Conacher: It’s really difficult to change completely, because it’s a human system of relationships, and you can’t stop people from having relationships with each other, friends or otherwise. What we’re trying to do is eliminate—and we’ve won rule changes, we’ll see if they’ll be enforced—that say you can’t do anything for anyone, or give anything significant to anyone, who you’re lobbying. And we’ve won some cooling-off periods, where people now have to sit out, if they’re at the senior levels, for five years from becoming a registered lobbyist. There are still loopholes that are still technical loopholes in this, and I’m sure there are people exploiting those technical loopholes. And so we still have work to do in that area, but the general ethic now, and the guidelines that are in place, are that there has to be a separation in terms of favour trading—and that’s a step forward, if it’s actually enforced.

There are two test complaints right now, before the lobbying commissioner and the ethics commissioner. And if they rule properly, they will find a couple of lobbyists and cabinet [ministers] and MPs guilty. And that will send a warning shot across the bow to everybody that you have to really separate yourself, and you can’t be doing things for each other, because as the Supreme Court ruled in 1996, if you don’t have the separation between private interests and public interests, you don’t have a democracy. But it’s really difficult, because people know each other, they get to know each other, and just based on that, they get some inside access and get to the top of the line, the front of the line. And the average voter’s concerns get ignored, just because of that human system. And it’s really difficult to separate people who know each other.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Do you ever get overwhelmed when you’re going home at the end of the workday and think about how much work there is left to do?

Duff Conacher: Rarely, just because I remind myself of the resources we have—not just myself, but volunteers and everybody, and I’m realistic about what we can accomplish. I’m not a political junkie, because being a junkie in any way is not healthy. And so I don’t follow everything all the time, because it should, if you’re sane, drive you crazy. Because there is so much going on, and so many rumours and things swirling around, that to pay attention to it is just kind of a crazy mess given the number of people involved and the number of stories and rumours. Just try and work smart, focus on the things we can actually change, keep in mind that saying about having the wisdom to know the difference between the things you can change and the things you can’t, and just leave it behind when I leave the office, as well. It’s not easy, but I know it’s the only way to do it and remain healthy. If you burn out by trying to pay attention to everything all the time, then you just waste a ton of time, because all those years you’re burned out, you don’t get anything done. So better to just, you know, slowly chip away and focus on a few things and concentrate and ignore everything else, so you can still bring the energy to it and not get driven crazy and burned out.

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