Thanks, Conrad

Fall of media baron shows how much governments can learn from big biz about transparency

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It might seem like a dark day for poetic justice when Conrad Black gets brought down a peg by his corporate peers but increases his fortune by $50 million. His company’s shares suddenly increase in value when he’s pushed out as top dog. But black magic works in mysterious ways, and there’s lots of good stuff to be learned from the new corporate norms of governance that led to the lord’s ousting. Indeed, this is one of those rare times when a corporation can teach governments about the requirements of a democratic society.

Governance became all the rage with the investment crowd after the dot-bomb of dot-com stocks in the late 1990s, followed quickly by Enron and the exposure of corruption and fraud among leading corporate execs.

Shareholders, who now include millions of ordinary folk with life savings and pension plans invested in corporations, discovered the benefits of open and clear practices under which shareholders are treated equally and tycoons don’t get to make rules for themselves.

Citizens can only dream of getting the kind of transparency from government that shareholders get from corporations. This is true in all sorts of ways, but the issue I’m most familiar with has to do with food.

A month ago, while corporate types were getting exercised about poor governance by Conrad Black, Canada’s federal Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development issued a report indicating that government staff disregard both laws and reasonable governance when it comes to pesticide safety. To read the document is to realize that ecologists have been duped into debating government policy when it’s pure whimsy that any policy will actually be implemented.

The Pest Management Regulatory Agency, in charge of pesticide regulation, “does not know” if the law and regulations are being followed. It suffers from a “lack of information about pesticide use and adverse effects,” and “a lack of suitable methods to measure pesticides.” It “is not meeting its targets for evaluating new pesticides,” the report states.

Health Canada “has done only limited research on the health effects of pesticides.” The studies that exist “are not subject to any independent checks on quality control.” The report continues: “We found that they have not determined how reliable their predictions of the risks are.”

In more than half the cases examined by the commissioner, evaluators “cut the scientific review short, or skipped the public consultation stage.” No serious staffing or financing plans are in place, and estimates of Canadian exposures to pesticide risks rely “on U.S. data from the mid-1990s or Canadian data from the 1970s,” so the agency “can provide only limited assurance that pesticide residues on food comply with the Food And Drugs Act.”

Literally every page of the 37-page report identifies irresponsibility that would lead to the sacking and public ridicule of a private sector CEO. Disgraced privacy commissioner George Radwanski, exposed for spending government money too freely on wine and travel, must be wishing he had only done something minor like endanger public safety.

Pesticide agency bureaucrats responded to the allegations with what’s known as a PFO (please fuck off). “Given finite agency resources,” a typical response goes, the agency “will continue to determine the appropriate and most effective balance for its compliance activities.” And with our public standards of governance, that’s all that need be said. The problem will never see the light in Parliament.

No citizens have a right to information about food they buy in the way that shareholders have a right to know what their investment is buying. No food comes with a label saying where it was grown or how, with what pesticides or seeds. Even organics only acknowledge some of the things the food was not grown with.

Lord Black finds himself amidst the glare of media. Agency staff responsible for pesticide risks remain amidst a media blackout. This is the world of double standards that corporate governance controversies serve to highlight.

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