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Gifts to MPs, staff and public officials have unethical influence -- 
ban on gifts must be enforced

The following opinion piece, by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher, 
was published in slightly different form in the May 22, 2006 issue of the Hill Times

Very unfortunately, but not surprisingly, ex-MP Joe Jordan's column ("Can I go to the hockey game?" - Hill Times, May 15) tried to downplay the problem of lobbyists buying gifts for federal politicians and government officials, and tried to blame the problem on vague federal ethics rules -- as did some ministerial staffers quoted in F. Abbas Rana's article ("Some Cabinet ministerial staffers say hospitality rules are 'nebulous'" - Hill Times, May 15)

In fact, the rules ban MPs and all members of their families from accepting any gifts and other benefits related to their position except customary hospitality (such as the gift of a meal when they speak at a dinner event) or normal courtesy or protocol (such as when they travel to another country and receive a gift symbolic of that country). (SEE sections 14 and 15 of the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons)

Ministers and their staff face a differently worded, but equally strong rule prohibiting taking gifts in their ethics rules (which were set out in Mr. Ranas article). (SEE subsection 3(6) and sections 19 to 21 of the Conflict of Interest and Post-Employment Code for Public Office Holders)

It is also not surprising that some MPs, and their staffers, believe that it is normal hospitality for mainly corporate lobbyists to attempt to buy them off with gifts, given that it happens all the time and has happened for decades.  However, the enforcement standard for federal ethics rules is not, and should never be, based upon what passes for "normal" on Parliament Hill.  Instead, the standard is, as for any law, what a reasonable person would believe is normal hospitality.

So what forms of hospitality are reasonable?  Scientific testing has proven that giving gifts/doing favours for someone is the best way to influence them, and that even small gifts influence decision-makers.  For example, testing has proven that doctors change their drug prescription patterns after they receive small gifts (such as free samples, pens, thermometers) from drug companies.  If any reader doubts these claims, you can see details by searching the Internet for the book "The Science of Influence" by Robert Cialdini (or articles by him and other researchers), and/or review research by Dr. Joel Lexchin and others on doctor prescription patterns.

This scientific research contradicts completely Joe Jordan's claim that being wined and dined by a corporate lobbyist in the lobbyist's hockey playoff box seats (which are worth much much more than the price of a "normal" ticket simply because you have to be invited to sit in a box seat) is a gift that would never influence a politician or staffer or public servant.  Doctors also claimed that they would never change their drug prescribing based on the gifts given by drug companies.

Moreover, Jordan seems to believe that each MP only receives one such gift from each issue lobby each year, when in fact the gift-giving, wining and dining by some lobby sectors happens all the time (especially by the big business lobbying associations).

It was also not surprising to see Conservative MP Jay Hill state that federal Ethics Commissioner Bernard Shapiro approved Hill's acceptance of the gift of an Ottawa Senator's playoff game box seat ticket (with all the perks) from Bell Canada, which lobbies the federal government.

The Ethics Commissioner has repeatedly failed to enforce federal ethics rules properly over the past two years, and has failed again in this case to set a meaningful, reality-based ethics standard that prevents conflicts of interest. 

Thankfully, if the proposed Bill C-2 Federal Accountability Act passes, Mr. Shapiro will no longer be the federal ethics watchdog. 

One can only hope that his replacement (who, unlike Mr. Shapiro, will have to be qualified for the job) will actually enforce the rules and finally ban the corrupting, back-scratching favours wealthy lobbyists and politicians and appointees and public servants have done for each other for decades.

Democracy Watch's Government Ethics Campaign

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