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.