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House Committees must recommend that federal Conflict of Interest Act and MP and Senate ethics codes and enforcement be changed in 30 key ways to finally make corruption in federal politics illegal

Act and MP and senator ethics codes are so full of loopholes they should be called “Almost Impossible to be in a Conflict of Interest Rules” – ethics rules for federal public servants are much stronger than the rules for politicians, as are penalties

Cases since 2007 involving dozens of Cabinet ministers, staff and MPs being let off the hook with no penalty show how much federal ethics rules and enforcement are a bad joke – will Prime Minister Harper finally get tough on undemocratic crimes?

Federal Ethics Commissioner has rejected more than 80 complaints with secret rulings since 2007 – disclosure must be required and penalties increased

Duff Conacher is testifying before the Committee at 3:30 pm on Wed. in Room 237-C, Centre Block, Parliament Hill, Ottawa

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

OTTAWA – Today, in its submission and testimony before the House Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee, Democracy Watch and the national Government Ethics Coalition called on the Committee to recommend strengthening the federal Conflict of Interest Act and MP and senator ethics codes, and enforcement system, in 30 key ways (and changing related laws in 14 key ways) to finally make corruption in federal politics illegal.  The House Ethics Committee is finally, eight months after the legal deadline, undertaking the mandatory five-year review of the Act.

Democracy Watch and the Government Ethics Coalition also called on the Procedure and House Affairs Committee to stop holding secret meetings reviewing the MPs’ ethics code, mainly because when the Committee did that in 2007 and 2009 it weakened the code both times.

The Conflict of Interest Act and the MP and senator ethics codes are so full of loopholes, they should be called the “Almost Impossible to be in a Conflict of Interest Rules” — and even worse the rules don’t even apply to the staff and advisers of MPs and senators.  Currently, because of these huge loopholes the Act and codes do not apply to 99% of the decisions and actions of the people covered by the Act and codes.

The ethics codes that federal politicians have imposed on public servants contain much stronger rules than the rules the politicians have written for themselves, and the penalties are stronger, including the possibility of being fired.

The cases of the following people being let off the hook with no penalty, along with many others who escaped accountability for very questionable actions in past decades, show how much federal ethics rules and enforcement are an ongoing bad joke — Prime Minister Harper, Nigel Wright, Tony Clement, Christian Paradis, Lisa Raitt, Rick Dykstra, Jim Flaherty, and 25 Cabinet ministers, ministers of state and parliamentarians who along with 35 Conservative MPs handed out government cheques with Conservative Party logos on them, and all MPs who accept sponsored travel from lobbyists.

The Ethics Commissioner is a major part of the problem with ethics enforcement – since 2007 she has rejected at least 80 complaints filed with her without issuing a public ruling (it could be more as she did not disclose the total number of complaints she received in 2008-2009 nor in 2010-2011).  She has received complaints about, or become aware of, at total of at least 100 situations, but has only issued 17 public rulings.  In other words, the Ethics Commissioner may be covering up more than 80 dangerously undemocratic ethics violations.

“Unethical decision-making in federal politics is legal, even by Cabinet ministers, and some political staff and appointees are still not covered by any ethics rules, so loopholes must be closed and enforcement strengthened to finally stop these dangerously undemocratic and corrupting actions,” said Duff Conacher, Board member of Democracy Watch and Chairperson of the 31-member group, nation-wide Government Ethics Coalition.

“To end the negligent pattern of enforcement of the federal ethics rules, the Ethics Commissioner must be required to conduct regular, random audits, and to investigate and rule publicly whenever there are questions about violations, and the Commissioner must be given the power, and required, to fine anyone who violates ethics rules,” said Conacher. “Also, the Commissioner must not be eligible for a second term in office because that creates an incentive to please the Prime Minister and Cabinet by covering up corruption.”

The Conservatives have also joined the international Open Government Partnership which requires, among other key changes, strengthening laws like the Conflict of Interest Act and the other ethics codes and related laws.

The Ethics Commissioner has made 75 recommendations to change ethics rules, but has ignored the biggest loopholes, and also recommended changes that will weaken the rules.  To finally make corruption in federal politics effectively illegal, the Committee must recommend the following changes:

  • Ensure everyone is covered by ethics rules (currently some ministerial staff and advisers, Cabinet appointees, and staff and advisers of MPs and senators are not covered by any rules);
  • Enact a general ethics/integrity rule to ensure that no one can escape accountability by exploiting technical loopholes (as already applies to public servants);
  • Enact an honesty-in-politics rule that everyone is required to comply with at all times, even in statements made in Parliament (as already applies to public servants);
  • Enact a rule prohibiting everyone from being in an apparent or foreseeable potential conflict of interest (as already applies to public servants, and as applies to B.C. politicians) with anyone or any entity, including for their political interests like fundraising or campaigning for re-election;
  • Delete the loopholes that allow everyone to take part in general application decisions even if they have a conflict of interest;
  • Require disclosure of all assets worth more than $1,000 (the current threshold of $10,000 is much too high) and require divestment of more assets;
  • Strengthen gift rules to make it clear gifts from anyone, including family and friends, that create even the appearance of a conflict of interest must be refused, and delete the loopholes that allow MPs to accept sponsored travel and volunteer service from lobbyists;
  • Enact a rule prohibiting acceptance of any benefit in return for switching parties, or giving up one’s seat or nomination as a candidate in an election;
  • Enact a rule prohibiting the personal use of government property, especially for political activities;
  • Enact a sliding scale for everyone prohibiting lobbying after leaving office for one year to five years (increasing in length as the decision-making power and potential conflicts of the person increase) to ensure everyone must take a cooling-off period;
  • Require everyone to report to the Ethics Commissioner their post-employment activities to ensure they are complying with their cooling-off period;
  • Require the Ethics Commissioner to issue a public ruling for every complaint received, and every time advice is given to anyone;
  • Require the Ethics Commissioner to do regular, random audits;
  • Ban the use of the illegal “conflict of interest screens” the Ethics Commissioner is currently using, and requiring disclosure of all recusals from decision-making;
  • Require the Ethics Commissioner to impose mandatory minimum penalties for ethics violations that match the penalties for lobbying violations (ie. $50,000 to $200,000 fines and jail terms);
  • Allow anyone to challenge any decision or ruling by the Ethics Commissioner in court for any error of fact or law;
  • Establish the Public Appointments Commission, and close the loopholes in the Lobbying Act to prohibit secret, unethical lobbying, and in Canada Elections Act to prohibit secret donations and loans, and in the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act to strengthen whistleblower protection and extend it to everyone (including political staff), and strengthen enforcement of all of these laws to prevent related unethical actions.

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Duff Conacher, Board member of Democracy Watch
Chairperson of the Government Ethics Coalition
Tel: (613) 241-5179
[email protected]

Democracy Watch’s Government Ethics Campaign

Democracy Watch’s Money in Politics Campaign