[Democracy Watch Logo] [Op-ed]

The following letter-to-the-editor, by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher, was published in the Ottawa Citizen on December 11, 2006

Dear Editor,

Current Senate Ethics Officer Jean Fournier is dangerously disconnected from reality about his independence (Letter -- Nov. 30), just as former federal Cabinet Ethics Counsellor Howard Wilson was and current Registrar of Lobbyists Michael Nelson is.

As courts around the world have ruled in many cases in the past, a watchdog must have several key characteristics in order to be independent: 

  • protection from firing except for a justifiable reason; 
  • full control over their power to investigate and issue public rulings (including binding interpretations of the rules they enforce), and; 
  • control over their budget and staff.
The former Ethics Counsellor had none of these things, and as a result the Federal Court of Canada ruled in July 2004 in the case filed by Democracy Watch's that the Counsellor was biased in favour of the Prime Minister who had the power to control him in every way.

The Senate Ethics Officer is protected from firing during his term in office, but the Senate ethics rules put him under the direction of a committee of senators, prohibit him from investigating or ruling (including on the meaning of the rules) without the committee‚s approval, and give the committee the power to overrule him, as well as the power to design the conflict-of-interest-disclosure forms senators fill out and to set the deadline for filing forms.

The Registrar of Lobbyists can be fired for any reason, and the Treasury Board minister has the power to control his budget and office staff, but like the Senate Ethics Officer he still claims that he is independent.

If it passes in its current form, Bill C-2 (the so-called "Federal Accountability Act") will eliminate the Registrar and create a fully independent Commissioner of Lobbying, in the same way a law passed in 2004 in response to Democracy Watch's court case eliminated the Ethics Counsellor and created the more independently structured Ethics Commissioner (one key flaw that remains is that the Ethics Commissioner is allowed to make secret rulings).

Unfortunately, Bill C-2 will do nothing to change the fact that the Senate Ethics Officer is a lapdog of senators.  Only senators can make that change, and as usual they show no interest in increasing their accountability in this or any other way.

Under the current Conflict of Interest Code for Senators, the Senate Ethics Officer is a complete lapdog (as bad as the former federal Ethics Counsellor because the Senate Ethics Officer has the following fatal flaws (among many others) under the Code:

  • the Officer is under the direction of a committee of senators (subsection 39(2));
  • the Officer cannot launch an inquiry without the committee’s approval (subsections 44(8) and (13)) or release an inquiry report (subsection 45(1));
  • the committee (not the Officer) designs the conflict of interest forms for senators (subsection 39(1)) and sets the annual form filing date (subsection 29(2));
  • the Officer cannot issue interpretation bulletins of the Code’s rules unless the committee gives its approval (subsection 8(6) and section 9), and;

  • the committee is the appeal body if a senator disagrees with the Officer (subsection 39(4)).

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