Canada is a great place to live and one of the highlights over the past decade has been the work of recently retired ethics watchdog, Mary Dawson.
How many countries in the world would allow a mere civil servant the power to find the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance in breach of conflict of interest rules and not be fired or discredited?
Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau were initially defensive, then rattled and finally contrite when found to be in violation of several sections of the Conflict of Interest Act.
Trudeau suffered embarrassment and shame and Morneau suffered financially when he donated over three million dollars to a charity to assuage his potential personal gain from the legislative changes he proposed.
By each of their reactions they didn’t want to think they had done wrong.
In the case of Trudeau, he was born and raised amongst the internationally powerful. Aga Khan was his father’s personal friend. It should have, but obviously did not occur to him or his advisors that even though a family friend, Khan’s relationship once Trudeau became Prime Minister was in conflict.
Conflict of interest rules and putting their businesses in blind trusts are particularly important for powerful businessmen moving into government such as Bay Street financier, Bill Morneau.
But lest we forget, Commissioner Dawson had recommended unsuccessfully for years that Ottawa plug a loophole that allows politicians to avoid certain ethics rules by holding shares or assets indirectly through a holding company.
With stronger provisions in this area, Morneau would have violated more ethical rules than the improper disclosure of a villa in France.
Morneau’s intimate business background on pension and financing was his Achilles heel as is often the case with senior business executives entering politics.
Government policies affect all of us but for those at the top of the heap, public policies have the power to hurt or serve them the most.
Of course, the people entering politics with little or no power aren’t exempt either, lest we forget Mike Duffy. We all need to guard against and be protected from the lure of fame, power and the rationalization “I deserve it”!
Trudeau’s and Morneau’s faulty moral judgements were not criminal for if they had been it would have been turned over the RCMP. Further, the rulings do not make either a bad person or unfit for office, rather it shows the infallibility of people and the need for strong, independent offices, such as the Ethics Commissioner.
Let’s be frank, whatever the political stripe or religious thread, we are all open to ethical and moral lapses which are the reasons why strong ethics legislation and enforcement are a necessity.
The Liberals are vulnerable today which gives the Conservatives and New Democrats the perfect opportunity to show ethical leadership. Simply, they now have the power of the public to get all of Mary Dawson’s long-standing recommendations into law.
There is little difference between those who break the rules or those who have the power to change the rules, but don’t.
If opposition parties don’t seize this moment, then they have shown themselves as no better.
by B.P. Schimke