Government Ethics Campaign

Advocating stronger, more effectively enforced ethics rules for politicians, government staff and officials, and lobbyists

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Key Links

Government Ethics Campaign 1993-2011 archive (archive website)

The Opportunity

On both lobbying and ethics reforms, the federal government has not heard from citizens or citizen groups enough to counter the lobbying of the lobbying industry.  It is important that you let the government know what you think about reforms to lobbying and ethics rules.

Democracy Watch has organized the Government Ethics Coalition, made up of 32 groups from across Canada representing over 2.5 million Canadians.  The Coalition is pushing the federal government to strengthen lobbying and ethics rules and enforcement of the rules.


The Liberal Party stated in its 1993 election campaign platform Creating Opportunity that “If government is to make a positive difference, honesty and integrity in our political institutions, so badly shaken by the Conservative government, must be restored.”  The Liberals promised a government “that listens to people because it cares about people” and pledged “openness in decision-making.”

Specific commitments made by the Liberals in Creating Opportunity include: implementing the recommendations of the June 1993 Holtmann Committee Report on changes to the Lobbyists Registration Act; appointing an independent Ethics Counselor to advise public officials and lobbyists and to enforce codes of conduct and report directly to Parliament; and developing a Code of Conduct for MPs and Senators and a Code of Conduct for Lobbyists.

When Prime Minister Chretien introduced the much-delayed government ethics package in Parliament on June 16, 1994, he said that the proposed changes to the Lobbyists Registration Act would “put an end to backroom deals” and bring lobbyists “from the shadows out into the open.” He said that that the Ethics Counselor position “has the teeth to investigate and take strong action,” and he also pledged that the committee to draft a Code of Conduct for MPs and Senators would be set up “as soon as possible.”

In fact, from June 1994 to 2012 it became very clear that the federal government’s lobbyist registration and ethics rules were full of loopholes, and were not effectively enforced.

First, Bill C-43, which amended the Lobbyists Registration Act in 1995, Bill C-15, which amended the Act in 2003, did not follow the Holtmann Committee recommendations, and left lobbying in the shadows by failing to close key loopholes.

Second, Howard Wilson, named Ethics Counselor in 1994, was not independent as the Liberals promised.  He reported behind closed doors to Prime Minister Chretien, and could only investigate conflicts of interest if Chretien allowed him, and he had no power to enforce the ethics standards.  And he proved to have no teeth when he failed to investigate or take action in 18 cases where Ministers (including the Prime Minister), MPs and Senators were involved in conflicts of interest and questionably unethical actions.  He also cleared several ministerial staff people, and more than 12 Liberal Party-connected lobbyists even though all were involved in highly questionable activities that most commentators believe violate federal ethics rules.

Third, Bill C-43 gave Howard Wilson, the Ethics Counselor, the authority to draft the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct. He began consultations on the Code in February 1996 and, after very limited consultations (mostly with lobbyists) he released the Code.  The Code is intentionally and severely flawed.  For example, a lobbyist can serve both the government and a client without violating the Code as long as both the government and the client have no problem with it.  As a result, a federal government department can give a contract to a lobbying firm that also consults on communication issues, and the lobbying firm can continue to lobby on behalf of clients on issues involving the same government department.  The Department of Finance and Industry Canada both did this with the Earnscliffe Strategy Group in the 1990s (one contract involved giving advice on how to communicate the budget, while Earnscliffe continued to lobby on budget issues for clients; the other contract involved giving advice on telecommunications policy, while Earnscliffe continued to lobby on the same issues for clients).

Fourth, Democracy Watch filed 12 complaints since April 2000 concerning questionable unethical activities of both Cabinet Ministers and lobbyists.  The Ethics Counselor ruled on 7 of the complaints, and in every case he cleared the Minister or lobbyist involved.  Democracy Watch challenged some of the Ethics Counselor’s rulings in court, and won that court challenge in July 2004.  (See news releases and other information about the complaints and the court case on the Five Ethics Complaints page)

Fifth, in spring 2003, then-Prime Minister Chrétien introduced in Parliament, finally, draft proposals in Bill C-34 that included ethics rules for MPs and Senators, and the creation of an independent, fully empowered Ethics Commissioner to enforce ethics rules for Ministers, MPs and Senators.  However, the proposals were not as strong as needed to ensure politicians act ethically.  Bill C-34 did not pass before Parliament closed in November 2003.  When Parliament re-opened in early February 2004, Prime Minister Paul Martin re-introduced Bill C-34 (now called Bill C-4) and it was passed in May 2004.  An ethics code for MPs was created in fall 2004, and for Senators in March 2005.

In addition, the federal government changed the Lobbyists Registration Act in June 2003 to require more corporate lobbyists to register, but these changes still left key gaps in the law that allow secret lobbying.

Sixth, Bill C-11, the Whistleblower Protection Act, was introduced in Parliament in October 2004 and became law at the end of November 2005.  Bill C-11 was flawed because it did not provide protection to all public officials (only bureaucrats would be protected), it did not create a fully-independent, fully-empowered agency to handle whistleblower complaints, and it did not offer any rewards to whistleblowers who report true government wrongdoing.

Seventh, on November 4, 2005, the federal Conservative Party pledged to pass 52 measures to increase the ethics and accountability of the federal government as the first thing they would do if they were elected. However, the Conservatives’ broke their election promises by passing a so-called “Federal Accountability Act” containing only 30 measures (many of which were weaker than promised) and eight other measures that weakened open government and ethical government rules.

To see Democracy Watch’s news release about the Conservatives’ broken promises, click here.

The Oliphant Commission into the Mulroney-Schreiber affair made some good recommendations (archive website) in its May 2010 report, as did the House Ethics Committee in its 2012 report on the federal lobbying law and its 2013 report on the federal government ethics law. However, the Conservative federal government didn’t implement any of them, and the Harper Conservatives also didn’t promise any changes in their 2008, 2011 or 2015 election platforms.

Finally, in 2015, the Trudeau Liberals were elected but they didn’t make any promises to strengthen the federal government ethics law or lobbying law. The Trudeau Liberals also made no promises in their 2019 federal election platform to strengthen these laws.

Click here to see details about the many ethics and lobbying complaints, and court cases, Democracy Watch has filed against federal politicians, government officials and lobbyists, and in some provinces also, since 2016.