(The following opinion piece, by Duff Conacher, Coordinator of Democracy Watch, was published in The Hill Timeson June 24, 2002)
For more information, go to Democracy Watch's Government Ethics Campaign page
Continuing his pattern of governing with deception and hypocrisy (instead of governing with integrity as he promised in 1993), Prime Minister Chrétien introduced yet another so-called "ethics package" on June 11th, again filled with vague, ambiguous or weak rules and empty promises.
Chrétien trumpeted the release of the guide for Cabinet ministers -- the same guide the government claimed a few years ago did not exist. Then the non-existent guide was part of a cover-up of a violation of ethics rules by a minister, now the guide exists and is being released to shift the public's attention away from several current violations of ethics rules.
Guidelines for ministers dealing with Crown corporations were also released as were guidelines for ministers fundraising for leadership campaigns and having government contractors and lobbyists working for them. In every case the guidelines contain loopholes that will allow anyone the Prime Minister wants to get off on a technicality.
For example, under the guidelines ministers "should not personally promote the private interest" of anyone, including a constituent, with any Crown corporation, but that rule is directly contradicted by following rules which say that the Minister and his or her staff "may always raise the concerns of constituents directly with the Minister responsible for the Crown corporation."
Individuals may not work for a minister's leadership campaign and work on a contract with the minister's department, but their company can work on the contract. Lobbyists may not work for a minister and lobby the minister, but their lobbying firm can continue to lobby the minister on behalf of private interests. Such rules are designed to allow the close relationships between ministers and favoured companies and lobbying firms to continue unchecked.
The fatal flaw of the ethics package is that the enforcer of all existing and new rules will continue to be the Ethics Counsellor who is completely controlled by the Prime Minister. Chrétien made a few deceptive moves to make it seem like he is making the Ethics Counsellor independent, but the Ethics Counsellor still has no investigative powers (which any enforcement agency, such as the police, need to do their job effectively) and the Prime Minister can still overrule any ruling the Ethics Counsellor makes (under section 24 of the ethics code for ministers).
As a result, the ethics package is actually the Prime Minister's defence package. Step out of line as a minister or junior minister, and the Prime Minister can arbitrarily find that you have broken the ethics code and punish you. If he likes you, don't worry, you can break any rule you like and Chrétien will have the Ethics Counsellor rubber-stamp you as ethical. And as for ever finding that the Prime Minister has broken any rule, that will remain completely impossible.
As for Paul Martin, the rules new and old now don't apply because he is no longer a minister. However, the Prime Minister and other ministers who have Liberal leadership hopes will be watching him closely and, in the end, Martin will likely have to follow more of the rules more closely because of their scrutiny.
The one new rule aimed mainly at Martin demands full disclosure of the identity of all donors and amount of donations to any leadership campaign fund within 30 days. If that rule was effectively enforced by an independent watchdog with investigative powers (which it won't be), it could reveal the extent to which Martin and other ministers are bankrolled by wealthy private interests.
Also on June 11th, the Prime Minister restated his promises from a few weeks ago to bring in an ethics code for all MPs and Senators and to close the loopholes in the lobbyist registration law (both promises the Liberals made in 1993 but broke soon afterwards). It may have sounded good when Chrétien proposed that an "independent parliamentary officer" will oversee the code for MPs and Senators (if the code is ever passed). However, he also proposed that the officer will be "under the direction" of a joint committee of MPs and Senators, which means there will be no independent or effective enforcement of the code.
In a similarly weak way, Chrétien promised to propose and/or consider changes to the law governing financing of political parties and candidates (but no promise was made to actually make the changes), and that a minister will "develop recommendations" for new systems to ensure that taxpayers money is spent and handed out properly (but implementing the recommendations was not promised).
It is not surprising that such weak promises are coming from a Prime Minister who has made and broken several "governing with integrity" promises in the past, and recently boasted that he is proud of his record on government ethics.
That's Prime Minister Chrétien in a nutshell -- a man who is proud that he has governed with deception and hypocrisy. In other words, don't believe that any "ethics package" or promises by Chrétien will lead to the Liberals acting ethically until a fully independent, fully empowered ethics commission exists to force them to govern with integrity.