[Democracy Watch Logo] [Op-ed]

The following op-ed, by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher,
was published in the Ottawa Citizen and the Winnipeg Free Press on January 10, 2007, in Edmonton's VUE Weekly on January 11, 2007, and in the Calgary Herald on January 13, 2007

Honesty-in-politics law needed to discourage and penalize political misleaders

The switching last week by federal Liberal MP Wajid Khan to the Conservatives is a symptom of two very undemocratic problems in Canada that must be solved as soon as possible -- the specific problem of party-switching, and the related general problem of dishonesty in politics. 

As with the switches in recent years by Scott Brison (Conservative to Liberal), Belinda Stronach (Conservative to Liberal with a Cabinet post included as a reward) and David Emerson (Liberal to Conservative, also rewarded with a Cabinet post), Khan's switch is fundamental violation of voter rights.

Under the "Democratic Rights" section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms it says (among other things) that "Every citizen has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly" in a province or territory.

However, this right has no meaning if candidates can be dishonest during election campaigns, and if the members elected can do whatever they want after the election.  By switching parties, or switching directions by breaking election promises or doing things that were not part of their election platforms, politicians send a clear message that there is no reason to vote because no matter how you vote you won't get what you want. 

Think about it -- how can you vote in any meaningful way when every candidate and party can lie to you?  You can't make a meaningful choice in such a situation, no matter how much you learn about a candidate or party, because you don't know what is true.

Believe it or not, in every province and territory, and federally, it is illegal for anyone to make a false claim about a candidate during an election campaign, but it is only illegal in B.C. for candidates to lie to voters (and this B.C. law doesn't include a clear, meaningful penalty for violators).  In many jurisdictions in Canada, politicians have gone even further by making it illegal for candidates to sign a pledge that they will or will not do something if they are elected.

In contrast, politicians have passed laws making it illegal for businesses to bait voters with false advertising, and making it illegal for corporate executives to mislead shareholders with false financial statements.  If only six Canadians file a complaint about a false ad, the federal Competition Bureau is required to investigate and has the power to fine violators, and investors can also launch class-action lawsuits against executives who lie.

While there has been lots of speculation about why voter turnout in Canada has dropped 15 percent in the past decade, and why a large majority of voters mistrust and lack respect for politicians, really no one should be surprised given that politicians have essentially made it illegal to hold them accountable in key ways while they have imposed laws with higher accountability standards on many sectors of society, and abused their lack of accountability so often.

Beyond the party-switchers and many other examples of political dishonesty, Canadians have watched Dishonest Jean Chretien break his promises including to scrap the GST and NAFTA and to establish an independent ethics watchdog for federal politicians and lobbyists, and Deceivin' Stephen Harper fail to include 22 promised measures in the Conservatives' so-called "Federal Accountability Act" (FAA) and break his promise not to tax income trusts.

In fact, Deceivin' Stephen took the huge step backwards with the FAA of removing the one ethics rule that requires the Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers, Cabinet staff, and many senior government officials to act with honesty (To see a summary of the FAA, click here and to see a summary of the loopholes the FAA failed to close, click here).

To stop this rampant abuse of voters, politicians must be required to resign and run in a by-election if they want to switch parties between elections; party leaders must be required to pay a very large fine if they break election promises, and; all politicians and government officials must be required to pay a very large fine if they lie to voters at any time.

As they do when arguing against most proposals to increase democracy and government accountability, some politicians and some political commentators attempt to justify bait-and-switch politics by either insulting voters, claiming that accountability already exists, or suggesting highly unlikely effects of such changes.

Some claim that most voters don't even know what they are voting for, and therefore politicians should be able to do whatever they want (without providing any evidence to back this claim).

Others claim that voters should be satisfied with the right to vote out the dishonest politician in the next election (which ignores the fact that often politicians are elected by a minority of voters, and also doesn't solve the problem that any new politician elected by voters could be lying as well).

Still others insist that politicians must have full flexibility to act as they please because you never know how circumstances may change and binding them to act in a specific way would be dangerous. 

Of course, special situations may arise and as a result party-switching should be allowed if a party switches directions completely (for example, if a ruling party broke all of its election promises), and promise-breaking should be allowed if an unforeseeable situation arises. 

However, to ensure that these exceptions are not used as a convenient excuse (as they have been in the past), the ethics enforcement officers in all governments must be given the power to review and rule on complaints about party-switching and misleading actions and statements, and to penalize political misleaders. 

For almost 140 years, Canadian politicians have done everything they can to ensure that dishonesty in politics is politics as usual.  Canadians deserve better, and any of today's politicians who want the respect of voters can win it easily by pushing for a comprehensive honesty-in-politics law that respects the right of voters to get what they want when they vote.

Democracy Watch's Honesty in Politics Campaign

Related to this op-ed is the op-ed by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher, There's nothing wrong with restricting political defections (January 19, 2007)

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