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Honesty in politics is the best policy, and so it should be required by law

Honesty in politics is the best policy, and so it should be required by law

Set out below is an op-ed by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher which was published in shorter, edited form on December 22, 2011 of the — To see the op-ed on, click here

To see more recent Democracy Watch op-eds calling for an honest-in-politics law, click here to see the Globe and Mail op-ed published June 5, 2019, and click here to see the Hill Times op-ed published November 4, 2019.

The recent scandals involving Conservative Cabinet ministers Peter MacKay’s use of a military helicopter for his travel, and John Duncan’s statement that he only heard about problems in Attawapiskat a couple of weeks prior to the story breaking, are yet more examples showing the clear need for an honesty-in-federal-politics law that applies to everyone and allows for complaints by anyone to an independent, non-partisan watchdog agency such as the federal Ethics Commissioner.

Last winter, if the Conservatives had a majority of seats in the House of Commons, they would have stopped the current parliamentary process aimed at penalizing Minister Oda for her misleading statements.  During past majority governments, many Cabinet ministers made false statements but no committee held hearings because ruling party MPs controlled the committees and blocked motions by opposition party members for accountability measures.

Similarly, it is very unlikely that MacKay or Duncan will face any penalty for misleading the House, even if the unlikely occurs and their Conservative colleague, House Speaker Andrew Scheer, decides to find them guilty.

In a minority government situation, the process is tainted by partisanship because the Speaker of the House — usually from an opposition party — decides if a Minister or MP is guilty of misleading the House, and opposition MPs decide whether the Minister or MP will be penalized.

If a minister or MP makes their false statements outside of Parliament, the parliamentary process can’t even happen because MPs can only penalize misleading statements made before committees or in the House.

For example, in summer 2010, then-Industry Minister Tony Clement made clearly misleading statements about the Conservatives’ decision to scrap the long-form census by Statistics Canada, but he did so outside Parliament, and so no process exists to hold him accountable.

Many ministers and MPs from all political parties, as well as their staff and government officials and lobbyists, have in the past escaped being penalized for false statements because of where they made their statements.  In fact, many have been awarded when they have gained voter support by making false election promises.

Some people (such as columnist Chantal Hébert) say dishonesty is just a normal part of politics that must be accepted, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Given the number of people hurt in various ways by this dishonesty, and how damaging lying is to reasonable, democratic debate, you would think that passing a law requiring honesty in politics would be a top priority of politicians across the country. In an Elections Canada survey in 2003, the top reasons for not voting were tied to politicians and governments breaking the public’s trust and the “widespread perception that politicians are untrustworthy, selfish, unaccountable, lack credibility, are not true to their word” while one of the key changes that would make young non-voters more interested in politics was “more honesty, responsibility, accountability” in government. And an Elections Canada survey in 2006 found that 60% of non-voters were turned off politics, likely because of dishonesty and other reasons (See p. 21 of this 2006 report (PDF)).

After all, politicians have passed many laws in the past requiring many Canadians to be honest in many ways.  From welfare applicants to taxpayers to corporate executives, it is illegal for Canadians to lie, and high penalties are in place to discourage dishonesty.

To become a citizen, to receive welfare, to receive tax deductions — you better tell the truth.  If corporate executives lie in the corporation’s financial statements, shareholders can sue.  If a corporation’s advertisement is false, and six Canadians file a written complaint, the Competition Bureau must investigate and has the power to fine and require the corporation to cancel or correct the ad.

It’s even illegal for anyone anywhere in Canada to make a false claim about election candidates.

But when it comes to candidates lying to voters, and politicians and government officials misleading the public, almost anything goes.  In fact, most election laws across Canada make it illegal for candidates to make a written pledge to do something specific if elected.

Some politicians, such as in B.C., have passed laws making election fraud illegal.  And the preamble to the ethics rules for federal MPs and government officials say that they are expected to do their jobs with “honesty”.  But these laws and rules are vague, don’t involve definite penalties, and are not effectively enforced (To see details about former federal Ethics Commissioner Bernard Shapiro’s refusal to enforce the honesty rule, click here).

Judges have ruled in lawsuits filed against promise-breaking politicians that voters are naive to believe election promises, and and so they have refused to punish misleaders (To see a 2000 B.C. court decision about the Glen Clark NDP government making a false claim during an election, click hereTo see a 2004 Ontario court decision about the Dalton McGuinty Liberal government breaking an election promise, click here).

And believe it or not, the federal Conservative government’s so-called “Federal Accountability Act” (FAA) actually decreases accountability significantly by deleting the honesty rule from the rules that apply to the Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers, ministerial staff, Cabinet appointees and senior government officials (and the Conservatives failed to include 22 other promised measures in the FAA and may not fully implement the FAA — To see details, click here).

A few ridiculous reasons are usually given for not requiring honesty in politics and not penalizing misleaders.

Some say that when candidates make promises, they don’t know what changes might occur if they win the election, and therefore shouldn’t be penalized if they break promises.  The simple solution is for candidates to make promises that honestly set out the circumstances under which they would change direction (instead of the usually dishonest iron-clad promises they currently make).

If honesty was required, some candidates and parties may try to get away with making only vague promises — but they would likely, over time, lose to those willing to set out a well-defined, contract-like platform that tells voters exactly what they will receive.

Under such a law, politicians could be allowed to cite truly unforeseeable changes as a justifiable reason for breaking a promise.

Some say that politicians do face a penalty for breaking promises or being dishonest — the penalty of losing public support and the next election.  However, promise-breaking politicians often don’t lose the next election, especially when their broken promise only affects a minority of the population.

Some say that there would be a flood of lawsuits if dishonesty in politics was made illegal.  While it may be that, as in war, the first casualty of politics currently is truth, very likely fewer politicians and government officials would be dishonest if they faced significant penalties, which would greatly reduce the number of cases.  As well, fear of many court cases didn’t stopped politicians from making dishonesty illegal for 500,000 Canadian corporations and millions of Canadians.

In addition, if honesty-in-politics laws gave the public the right to complain to ethics watchdog agencies, and the agencies the power to dismiss frivolous complaints, and to penalize misleaders only with high personal fines, even if complaints were numerous they could be dealt with fairly quickly, easily and inexpensively.

Finally, some make the highly speculative, and patronizing, claim that politicians and government officials can’t always be honest, because the public couldn’t handle the truth.  This incredibly undemocratic viewpoint assumes that politicians and officials have (for some unstated reason) some special mental capacity that allows them to be exposed to reality, while for everyone else to survive they must live in a fantasy bubble created by governments.

Those defending politicians switching parties in between elections give similarly dubious reasons why this type of dishonesty should be allowed (To see an op-ed on the subject of party-switching by politicians, click here).

If those giving these highly questionable reasons were thinking at all about voter rights, they would realize that it is impossible to vote as long as candidates can lie.  No matter how closely voters study and compare candidate or party platforms and statements, if they are untrue voters cannot make a choice.

So while the fundamental right to vote is guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it is violated across the country on a regular basis.  No wonder the number one reason non-voters give for failing to cast a ballot is lack of honesty in politics, and dishonesty is the top government accountability concern for voters.

An honesty-in-politics law would give voters a good reason to trust politicians again.

So, tell your municipal, provincial and federal politicians that you want them to pass a law giving the public an easy, low-cost way to file complaints about broken promises, party-switching, and false claims, with high penalties for violations, and do the same with candidates in every election.

To be honest, you may not like the answer you receive.  But you will find out which of them want to make politics an honest living, and which are leaders as opposed to misleaders.

And, if we’re all lucky, that will eventually lead to a critical mass of politicians across Canada finally respecting voters wishes and rights, and passing the strong, strict honesty-in-politics laws all Canadians deserve.

Honesty is the best policy, but politicians and others involved in politics will never be able to make an honest living until honesty is required by law.

For more details, go to Democracy Watch’s Honesty in Politics Campaign page