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The Hill Times’ Terrific 25 Staffers Survey should include the ‘most ethical’ too — and huge loopholes in federal ethics rules must be closed, and enforcement strengthened

Set out below is a letter-to-the-editor by Democracy Watch Founder Duff Conacher which was published in the Hill Times, July 23, 2012

TORONTO—The Hill Times’ 12th Annual Terrific 25 Staffers Survey of people involved in federal politics was most revealing because the ranking criteria did not include “most ethical staffer.” If members of the public were surveyed, this would very likely be their most important criteria given that dishonesty, secrecy, unethical activities, lack of representation and waste consistently rank as the Canadians’ top concerns about government.

Instead, according to the survey, political staff are valued for being most discreet (i.e. most secretive), closest to the Prime Minister and most influential (i.e. among other things, most likely to change elected politicians’ decisions (including for lobbyists), and best at spin (i.e. most misleading), along with most knowledgeable and most experienced.

Would Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff Nigel Wright be named “most ethical?” The Conflict of Interest Act does not require (archive website) him to recuse himself from any general matter decision-making process even if it will directly affect his personal financial interests, or the interests of his family or friends or the dozens of companies in which his company, Onex, is invested, or the interests of the companies in which the two other private holding companies he owns are invested, or the two dozen or so other companies in which he own shares, or the other investments he placed in his so-called blind trust.

In fact, he has not disclosed any recusals from any decision-making processes in the Public Registry for the Act. That may be because federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson has set up a system of so-called “ethical screens” to hide recusals by Cabinet ministers, staff and appointees, a system that violates Sec. 25 of the Act (which requires public disclosure of the details of all recusals).

What the ethics commissioner did, according to her public testimony by her before House committees, is just arrange for public office holders to recuse themselves from whole areas of decision-making, but not declare it. She has admitted more recently that this is not a correct approach, but is still only requiring disclosure of some of those recusals, again, according to testimony by her before House committees.

But, in any case, isn’t it reasonable to say that an ethical person would recuse him/herself from all decision-making processes that affect their personal financial interests, and would publicly disclose their recusals, even if a flawed law combined with a lapdog ethics commissioner do not require these actions?

As for Andrew MacDougall, director of communications for the Prime Minister, he “helps when he can,” according to Yaroslav Baran, a former Conservative staffer. Does he help everyone equally? Or does he give more help to people who have worked in the past for Prime Minister Harper, Conservative Cabinet ministers, and Conservative Party election campaigns?

If it’s the latter, that sounds very similar to giving preferential treatment which is not allowed under Sec. 7 of the Conflict of Interest Act (as Conservative Cabinet minister Christian Paradis found out recently, although because the act does not include any penalties for violations of its key democratic good government rules, and because Prime Minister Harper regularly ignores the Act and his own rules set out in the Accountable Government guide for ministers, Paradis remains an unpenalized Cabinet minister).

And in case anyone is wondering, these same loopholes and flaws (and others), and weak enforcement (archive website) by Dawson, also undermine the ethical standards set out in the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons, and (even more so), the ethical standards set out in the Senate Ethics Code (in no small part because the Senate Ethics Officer is under the control of a committee of Senators).

And as for all other political staffers, except senior staff in the Opposition Leader’s Office, no ethics rules apply to them, and they are not required to disclose any personal interests (not even financial interests), so who knows how their actions would measure up to ethics criteria if such criteria were included in your definition of a “terrific” staffer.

Maybe they are all acting honestly, ethically, openly, representatively, and preventing waste all of the time. The public has a right to know whether they are acting in these ways (since we pay their salaries), but we won’t know until rules are applied to them requiring them to act properly, with full disclosure requirements, and independent enforcement by a fully-empowered, well-resourced watchdog with a strong enforcement approach (unlike the ethics commissioner), and the power to penalize violators.

Knowing how committed all of the federal politicians are to democratic good government, I am sure that the MPs on the House Procedural Affairs Committee will strongly recommend closing the huge loopholes and correcting the flaws and strengthening enforcement of the MPs’ ethics code when they continue their review of the code after Parliament opens again in September. And I am also sure that the House will make those changes right away.

I am also sure that the House or Senate or joint committee that reviews the Conflict of Interest Act soon (the review is already seven months (archive website) past its legal five-year deadline) will also make strong recommendations to close the loopholes in, and strengthen enforcement of, the act, and that the Conservative Cabinet will introduce a bill that will make those changes that will pass quickly and unanimously.

I am also sure that the Senate will clean up its ethics act sooner than later.

And I am also sure that an ethics law or code will soon be enacted to apply to political staffers, so that you can add it to your survey criteria.

I am so sure of all of these things because I have faith that federal politicians will do the right ethical thing very soon, even though they haven’t for the past 145 years, unfortunately. Better to hope than to despair, as someone said recently.

For more details, go to Democracy Watch’s Government Ethics Campaign