Justin Trudeau’s speaking fees affair, and the Senate and MP expense and ethics scandals, all reveal how negligent federal politicians have been in establishing strong, clear rules for their jobs and ethics. And as many other ongoing scandals reveal, politicians across Canada have been equally negligent.
Canada is 146 years old, and the first provincial legislature opened more than 220 years ago, but still the rules for politicians are full of huge loopholes — the staff of MPs and senators and other non-Cabinet politicians across Canada are still not even covered by any ethics rules.
Again and again, Canadian politicians have circled the wagons and protected each other by failing to strengthen rules, enforcement and penalties. Not one political party leader since 1867 has proposed, let alone pushed for, all the changes needed to clean up politics.
And many changes are needed. Politicians should be required to work a set number of hours each week, with their required duties clearly defined, along with allowed and prohibited outside activities, all disclosed in an online searchable database, including any pay received over $1,000.
Speaking to groups and any other appearance at any event should be something all politicians are required to do for free because their role is to be a representative of government to the broader community. They also already receive a substantial benefit at such events of the opportunity to connect with voters and promote themselves and their political party.
As well, politicians and their staff should be required to disclosure online detailed receipts and reports about who was on each trip, who attended each event, how much was spent by each person, and everything that was done, to ensure they are not having the public pay for their personal or party activities.
Auditor Generals across Canada should have been auditing all these people for decades – they have the clear legal power to do so and should start right away. The Senate has invited the AG in for a one-time audit, and federal MPs just voted to review their self-auditing system. This is not good enough – regular, comprehensive audits by the AG of the expenses of everyone in politics must be required by law. The AG should also have the power to penalize violators for administrative, non-criminal wrongdoing.
In addition, ethics laws across Canada must be strengthened to prohibit politicians and their staff from taking part in any discussions or decisions if they have even the appearance of a conflict of interest between their official duties, and their other activities, financial or other personal, family and friend interests.
Ethics enforcement must also be strengthened across the country, especially for both MPs (the Ethics Commissioner has made more than 80 secret rulings in the past five years, as well as let dozens of ministers and MPs off the hook) and senators (the Senate Ethics Officer is controlled by a committee of senators, and can also make secret rulings). And much stronger penalties are also needed for ethics rules violations — currently there are none at the federal level, and weak penalties elsewhere.
The House of Commons ethics committee is reviewing the federal ethics law and codes right now, and if it fails to recommend dozens of much-needed changes to strengthen rules and enforcement, it will be a clear sign that federal parties are once again circling the wagons instead of making unethical politics as usual finally illegal.
Last year, the House ethics committee reviewed the federal lobbying law and failed to recommend requiring disclosure of all lobbying and fundraising and other favours lobbyists do for politicians (and most provinces have even bigger lobbying and donation loopholes). Weak as the committee’s report was, Treasury Board Minister Tony Clement has failed to act on it.
So while politicians across Canada are talking the talk more than ever on ethics and accountability, and while Quebec politicians have finally some steps to clean up their mess, the overall poor record for the past 146 years means no one should ever hold their breath waiting for politicians to walk the walk on democratic good government.
However, the pressure is on, and they will hear an earful this summer from voters, and scandals will undoubtedly keep popping up, and the elections federally and in most provinces in 2015-2016 are looming. So we can only hope all that will be enough to convince them, finally, to clean up all the rules and enforcement so they all have to clean up their act. Canadians deserve no less.
Tyler Sommers is the Coordinator of Democracy Watch, Canada’s leading democracy and good government organization (https://democracywatch.ca)