04/07/2017 12:10 EDT | Updated 04/07/2017 12:10 EDT

The CAF Ombudsman Must Be An Officer Of Parliament

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Final rehearsal prior to a military parade at a Canadian military air force base in Trenton, Ontario, Canada.

Canadians depend on the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to defend us at home and abroad. In dangerous times they are prepared, if need be, to die protecting us. That is why it was disheartening and not at all good news to hear the Canadian Forces Ombudsman claim that the Department of National Defence (DND) is hampering and undermining his work.

The office of the Ombudsman was set up after the infamous Somalia Inquiry some eighteen years ago to increase transparency in the Canadian Forces and the DND. It was mandated to act as an independent third party investigator of the complaints from the military personnel regarding their issues with the CAF and the DND. The originally contemplated review of the mandate and the regulations governing the office after the first six months of its operations was never done. The office deals with about 13000 calls from active and retired military personnel. It currently has a workload of 1900 cases relating mainly to the transition to civilian from military life.

The Ombudsman Gary Walbourne has submitted to the government the report, "A Case for a Permanent and Independent Ombudsman Office," arguing that since the office investigates and holds to account the DND headed by the minister of national defence, the Ombudsman should not be reporting to the minister whose department it investigates and reports on. In addition to the Ombudsman reporting to the Minister of National Defence, the defence officials control the purse strings of Ombudsman's office.

In a nut shell, the office that is supposed to be an independent and neutral third party to hold the DND accountable actually reports to its minister. Furthermore, and to make matters worse--and highly questionable in terms of any independence that the Ombudsman should have and be seen to have--DND, the subject of the Ombudsman's investigations oversees the Ombudsman's budget.

Under this less than ideal or independent arrangement, it wasn't at all surprising to read a National Post story [April3,2017] reporting an ongoing battle between the Ombudsman and the DND wherein he accused officials of the department of "insidious attacks whenever his office release(d) a report critical of the department". Mr. Walbourne has claimed that the attacks by the department affect his ability to do his job. The subservient arrangement under which it operates is not conducive to the absolutely essential independence of the Ombudsman Office; and to any independent and objective observers the problems enunciated by the Ombudsman do not at all come as a surprise.

The current budgetary arrangement was the result of a negative report of the auditor general under the previous Ombudsman. Mr. Walbourne argues that the mess left by the previous occupant has been cleaned up but still the unnecessary financial strictures continue which, he argues, constrain and undermine the office's independence and ability to properly carry out its mandate.

The reporting and budgetary arrangements undermine both the appearance and fact of the independence, including operational independence of the Ombudsman's office. The Ombudsman says "the department's tight grip on his office's finances" is being used against his office and its work. He states that "You can almost trend my administrative burdens and the way this office is received with my systemic reviews when I release them and there is a challenge to the department to change something...The administrative burden gets a little bit more. Things get delayed a little bit. It's insidious."

If the allegations made by the Ombudsman are true, and one has no reason to believe otherwise, the whole arrangement makes a mockery of the office's "operational independence" that is fundamental to doing the right thing for our military personnel.

The Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should be concerned about what the Ombudsman says and not allow his very serious complaints linger unaddressed. If as claimed by the DND minister Harjit Sajjan, the government believes in the operational independence of the Ombudsman's office, it should have no hesitation or difficulty in implementing Mr. Walbourne's proposal to make the office answerable to Parliament.

Not for a nanosecond should it remain accountable to the minister and government whose department and actions it is meant to investigate. The appropriate functioning of the Ombudsman Office demands and deserves complete operational independence; and the country owes it to the CAF's men and women it is designed to serve.

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