Lots for EC to investigate, maybe - Macleans.ca

Lots for EC to investigate, maybe


In today’s Ottawa Citizen, UofO prof Errol Mendes has a good column arguing that the ethics commissioner has ample jurisdiction to investigate and pronounce on checkgate. While he’s kind enough not to denounce me personally, it’s a pretty straightforward rebuttal of my column from Monday

The core of Mendes’ argument is to foreground section 8 of the code, which forbids MPs from using their office to further their “private interests,” and then asserts that the Conservative party is a private entity, and should not be confused with the government. Thus, there’s a clear conflict.

I don’t agree with all of it, and I think the real question is how far we want to stretch the definition of “private interests”, given section five of the code, which reads: “A Member does not breach this code if the Member’s activity is one in which Members normally and properly engage on behalf of constituents.”

The fact is, most of what an MP does on behalf of constituents is aimed, ultimately, at getting re-elected. And in getting re-elected, the MP benefits his or her party. Which is a private interest. Hence, an MP should not do anything that could help him or her get elected. Right?

The larger issue then is whether we want to criminalize (or quasi-criminalize) behaviour that all politicians have done since the dawn of time. In many ways, it is the parallel to the argument that David Mitchell and David Paciocco advanced during Ottawa mayor Larry O’Brien’s trial last summer: That if what O’Brien did was illegal, then every politician in the history of Canada is equally guilty.

That isn’t to say that anything goes; just that what is permissible is open to reasonable debate, and what the public or the opposition will tolerate is highly context-driven — which  means it might be properly dealt with in the political realm. The alternative is the inevitable politicization of Mary Dawson’s office, which is exactly what happened to Bernard Shapiro, and we all know how well that went.

All of that said, on the more narrow question of the Tory logo on the cheques, I think Mendes is right, that it probably does violate the Code of Ethics. I hope Dawson’s decision to investigate doesn’t lead to a flood of complaints from all sides of the House, in an attempt to turn her into Parliament’s scold.

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Lots for EC to investigate, maybe

  1. “The fact is, most of what an MP does on behalf of constituents is aimed, ultimately, at getting re-elected. ”

    Oh Please

    You can use that excuse to justify murder.

    • Well, murder being a criminal offence, I don't think that would fly.

      I just typed a paragraph about this being an ethical gray area, but re-reading my own thoughts I erased it. We do indeed have a conflict of interest here:
      Interest 1: Improving the party's standing with the Canadian people
      Interest 2: Acting in the best interests of Canadians by providing stimulus funding for infrastructure improvements and jobs

      By branding cheques made out to companies, organizations, and individuals as being from the Conservative Party, when those funds were clearly taxpayer dollars and not party money, they unnecessarily put those two interests above in competition.

      Working for Government 101 is that you [i]never, ever, ever[/i] put political labels on government products. Even consulting firms that perform contract work for government know this.

      • "Well, murder being a criminal offence, I don't think that would fly. "

        Of course it wouldn't, which makes Potter's opening premise in itself utterly ridiculous.

    • throw harper out and start over!

  2. When has a positive ruling of violation from the Ethics Commissioner ever resulted in any kind of consequence? What good is an Ethics commissioner if his or her rulings and judgements, or lack thereof, have no effect on anything and do nothing but serve as a political tool (either a club, or a get-out-of-jail-free card, as the case merits) to be wielded by partisans?

    Recent example:

    Ruby Dhalla: “I’ve asked the Ethics Commissioner to investigate my actions w.r.t. nannygate. Look how proactive I am!”
    Ethics Commissioner: “Not my jurisdiction, I’m not going to investigate”
    Ruby Dhalla: “Hooray, I’m vindicated!”

    Perhaps it’s time to consider abolishing this position.

    • I've argued for its abolition many times. Now I just try to keep it out of trouble.

  3. Why isn't it chequegate?

    • Hear hear. But perhaps Mr. Potter is implying that it's the checking on the cheques that's the real scandal here.

  4. "The fact is, most of what an MP does on behalf of constituents is aimed, ultimately, at getting re-elected."

    While it is a reasonable assumption that someone who wishes to help society through political means must be elected in order to have access to those means, but if ethical standards must be ignored in order to help one's community then that help comes at a very high price. In the end, it comes down to the standards that society demands of the people they elect to represent them. If we're willing to turn a blind eye to unethical behaviour from our politicians, then we have no one but ourselves to blame if they behave unethically.

  5. I'd say that the problem with Chequegate is that a political party is definitely a "private interest" — the constitution does not recognise them — so logos on cheques are taboo.

    The fact is, most of what an MP does on behalf of constituents is aimed, ultimately, at getting re-elected. And in getting re-elected, the MP benefits his or her party. Which is a private interest. Hence, an MP should not do anything that could help him or her get elected. Right?

    Surely it's a question of who the principal beneficiary is. And the key phrase is "normally and properly" — two adverbs that may not sit well together when it comes to MPs' ethics.

    • Who is the principal beneficiary of statements in question time that would be libelous if repeated outside the House? Do they constitute a breach of the conflict of interest code?

      The code, overall, seems intended to prevent using your public office to enrich yourself or others. To suggest that it also prohibits you from using your public office to get re-elected is a bizarre stretch. The Federal Identity Policy already provides separate guidance on what branding is acceptable for novelty cheques and the like.

      • So you are cool with all government business being done in the name and with the logo of the governing party? You'd be fine with replacing the Government of Canada logo with the CPC logo? Because it's no holds barred, right?

        • No – there is a Federal Identity Policy that prevents that. There are three novelty cheques that crossed that line. Some reasonable disciplinary action should be taken.

          But why stretch the Integrity Commissioner's mandate beyond the intent of the existing code? A rule that prohibits politicians from using their offices for political purposes seems misguided. Particularly if the opposition decides when to launch investigations into its breach (allowing them to claim there are fifty ongoing ethics investigations). How does this serve the public interest (other than by helping defeat the Conservatives)?

        • I'll add that I'm not that keen on a political party adopting the colours and symbolism of the Canadian flag as its logo, either, and wonder why the Liberals have been allowed to do that.

          • It was the other way around: the Liberals were red before the flag was.

          • Shocking – and the flag was adopted by a Liberal PM? What did people say about such crass partisanship?

          • They depreciated it, if memory serves.

          • The last line of Prof. Mendes' column is "The countries that have conflated the governing party with the government of the country include the People's Republic of China, Zimbabwe and Sudan." And our natural governing party happens to use the colours and symbols of the Canadian flag as its personal logo. Isn't there some irony in having this debate over branding government images with party colours when one of the parties is using the government's colours? Whatever one thinks of conspiracy theories, this was the party leading minority governments when the flag was adopted and when the official colours were decided…

          • It was a minority parliament that adopted the flag. In fact, Diefenbaker fought to keep the RED Ensign.

            Also, our national colours were already red and white, by royal decree in 1921.

            Always a good idea to read your history before you start imposing conspiracy theories upon it.

          • True. And Pearson had actually wanted a flag with three red maple leaves and two blue stripes.

          • Man, we dodged a bullet there.

          • Oh well, obviously it's silly to accuse a minority government of partisanship…

          • There's times to admit you made an assertion without knowing the relevant information. I've certainly done so. This is your time.

          • Okay – I didn't know about the 1921 declaration and wasn't sure what Dief argued in the flag debate. Fortunately, I could easily incorporate both these facts into the conspiracy theory you suggest.

            1921, Canada's first minority parliament and the governing Liberals coincidentally benefit from having their party colours declared the official colours of Canada. Hmm…

            Then, Pearson's minority Liberal government selects a red and white flag over the Conservative preference for a flag with colours from all major parties. Hmm..

            At a minimum, there must be some irony in having one party use Canada's official colours as its brand while condemning another party for using different colours on its publicity props.

          • Fact: The official colour of the LPC is red and was used informally in the early 1800s and formally adopted in 1877.
            Fact: Canada's official colours of red and white were officially proclaimed in 1921
            Fact: Canada's official flag bearing the official colours of the country was offically proclaimed in 1965.
            Fact: Canada's official colour has never been blue.

          • Not quite so fast –
            "Red and white became Canada's official colours as a result of the proclamation of the arms of Canada by King George V in 1921."

            This proclamation had nothing whatever to do with who was governing this country at the time.

            As for the Red Ensign complicating anything –
            "From approximately 1870 to 1904, it [the Red Ensign] was used on land and sea as Canada's flag, with the addition of a shield in the fly bearing the quartered arms of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Although its use on land had never been sanctioned except by public usage, in 1892 the British admiralty approved the use of the Red Ensign for Canadian use at sea."


          • Try getting your facts right Style, that way you wont have to be shocked. Pearson [ the PM remember ] wanted the flag to be blue, Dief wanted it red. Yeesh! Does no one read Canadian history anymore?

          • Really?

            The red ensign wasn't red???

          • You can follow the link below to see a picture of the Red Ensign. If the version you see does not include a copious amount of blue, please see a medical professional.


            Leaving irony to its own devices, can anyone tell us what motivated the King to proclaim Canada's official colours in 1921? It's surprising to hear he acted without consulting the sitting Canadian government.

        • have to agree with Style's distinction. Yu don't have to believe the novelty cheques are a good idea to also believe that they are not a conflict of interest under their code.

          From their website: 8. "When performing parliamentary duties and functions, a Member shall not act in any way to further his or her private interests or those of a member of the Member's family, or to improperly further another person's or entity's private interests." Elsewhere they define or clarify that an MP is not furthering an interest if they are part of a broad class of people.

          From what I see, the code is limited to enriching oneself or ones family and in a limited way to enriching a thrid party organization "improperly". Dragging the commissioner into this just muddifies – to appropriate a Fotheringham cojnage – the role of the commissioner.

  6. Fairly predictable that if Dawson comments on anything it will be on the logos which everyone admits were wrong. And even there the admission can be used to side-step reading anything into the commissioner’s role.

    • Dawson's situation, like Page's is that they were token appointments with strictly limited mandates.

      • The difference is that it seems Dawson read up on the job description. Page took longer to get around to it.

  7. Quite right, as you and Style both say. I agree that this muddies the waters. But I wonder what if any disciplinary action would result from the Federal Identity Policy on this. The bottom line seems to be that we need to prevent the outright politicisation of government programs, but the Ethics Commissioner is not the person to be doing that.

    • Not under the current range of responsibilities, at any rate.

  8. "The fact is, most of what an MP does on behalf of constituents is aimed, ultimately, at getting re-elected."

    The job of an MP is not to get re-elected, it is to serve the people who elected her or him. An MP who diligently does the job they were elected to do is likely to be re-elected over and over again.

    The current Conservative view seems to be: ignore the peole who elected you unless they are rich white people, smear and heckleyour opponents and steal the taxpyers' money to buy yourself votes.

    • I don't know about that. There's lots and lots and lots of things to pin on them, ranging from malicious to stupid. But I think you'd have a hard time showing that they've privileged rich Canadians, particularly. And they've made considerable efforts toward courting the votes of new/ethnic/non-white Canadians, with remarkable success.

      • I was thinking more of their treatment of Suaad Mohamud, Abousfian Abdelrazik, and others. Non-white Canadians the Harper government has refused to Stand Up For.

        • SM is nowhere near a clear story, but indeed AA is baffling.

          But to then sweep it all up as "only rich white people matter to the Conservatives" betrays any nanogram of intellectual honesty that may have been lurking in your cranial recesses somewhere.

          • Quite right. Most rich white people are Liberals. It's the white middle middle class that's Conservative.

          • Sadly, this risks perpetuating the pathetic falsestereotype that nonwhiteCanadians have no place in a certainmajor Canadian political party. From: notifications@intensedebatemail.comTo: bobbarne@hotmail.comSubject: Jack Mitchell replied to your comment on Lots for EC to investigate, maybe

          • Well, I was being glib, but you have to admit that the visible minority vote is generally up for grabs (as opposed to constituting a certain major Canadian political party's base).

        • Without diminishing the considerable incompetence those cases demonstrate – both in the decisions made *and* poor communication about those decisions – a more obvious explanation would lie in their blind dogma of 'law and order', than overt racism.

          Does that make them a better government, in terms of that particular file? No. But it sure as heck doesn't do much to charge them with racism. It's most likely not true, and serves to marginalize genuine criticisms as based in visceral hatred of the Conservatives, instead of potentially valid charges of incompetence on their part.

  9. good point, when do politicians get held responsible for previous activities?