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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Understanding the job of the Ethics Commissioner

A politician is judged by the electorate.

Seems like a simple enough concept, doesn't it? You make promises, you try to implement them, you show the results, the voters decide.

Short of committing a criminal act, that is the only judgment a politician need submit to.

So what good is an Ethics Commissioner? He is not a judge, at least not in the sense of handing out punishments. His role is to ensure that elected officials and their staff understand the rules for ethical behaviour (a concept that focuses almost entirely on private financial interests versus the public trust, according to the code), most importantly where conflicts of interest arise. It's a bit sad that we have to have someone explain those concepts, but an argument can be made that having one person provide a consistent interpretation (as long as it is a good one) is better than hundreds of different interpretations.

But even if someone is caught in a conflict of interest, the Commissioner can only recommend appropriate "sanctions", which aren't defined. Presumably such sanctions would be limited to requiring an MP to divest himself of a certain financial interest found to be causing a conflict of interest.

Even the implementation of those recommended sanctions is left up to the government, where a political decision is made concerning those sanctions.

But some people don't get it. They think the Ethics Commissioner is some sort of watchdog whose job it is to compel politicians to implement a particular policy or piece of legislation:

The lobby group Democracy Watch has launched a formal complaint with the federal Ethics Commissioner accusing the Conservative government of breaking election promises.

The same letter of complaint also repeats Democracy Watch's call for ethics commissioner Bernard Shapiro to resign for failing to vigorously enforce ethics rules.

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch said Thursday that Bill C-2 - the federal Accountability Act - breaks or omits 13 specific promises made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the run-up to the Jan. 23 vote.

Breaking a promise is not an ethical lapse in the sense defined in the code. It is an ethical problem if the promise was broken because of a financial conflict that had not been disclosed. But it's the financial conflict, and not the promise, that is the concern of the Ethics Commissioner.

How to keep promises, in what order, and which to forgo altogether, are political decisions. Sometimes they are made for reasons of crass political expediency, and sometimes for very obvious pragmatic reasons. Sometimes it becomes clear that the promise was just dumb. Sometimes the promise is kept, but had to be modified in some manner, and people mistakenly think that the promise was not kept.

At the end of the day, though, these are issues of politics, not ethics, at least not in the sense defined by the code. The judgment lies with the voters, not with the Ethics Commissioner. Duff Conacher is way off base by trying to pull the Ethics Commissioner into this.

Posted by Steve Janke on May 25, 2006 | Permalink


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Oh, this is rich! Not only does Duff want the Ethics Commish to investigate the PM, but he wants the Commish to resign too?!? I'd settle for getting Shapiro to resign. At least he'd be batting .500...

Posted by: Another Sean | 2006-05-25 12:30:17 PM

When almost everything that the government does is in essence unethical, politically motivated greed and robbery, then of course it will be difficult to define what is the proper role of an "ethics commissioner". Is he supposed to ensure that the money confiscated from honest, intelligent, hardworking citizens in order to buy the votes of dishonest, stupid and lazy citizens, is REALLY used to buy those votes? If a certain amount of the money collected in order to buy those votes is diverted into the hands of a different, unintended group of dishonest, stupid and lazy people - which ethics violation do you think is the most important?

Posted by: Justzumgai | 2006-05-25 6:28:59 PM

The biggest problem with the Ethics Commissioner is the ethics definition. An effective ethics code could be this simple-No MP shall do anything unethical. Ethics is a lot simpler than most people like to admit. It should be up to the Commons Ethics Committee to take it from there. An act that appears wholly ethical on the surface may not be upon further investigation, and vice versa. It would be up to the Ethics Committee to look into apparent sins and deal with them. There is rarely such a thing as "borderline unethical" as the Ethics Commissioner has occasionally ruled. Ethics are a broad plain upon which you base your life. There is no reason to walk right out to the edge of that plain and look over it unless you are contemplating something unethical.

Posted by: Bill Greenwood | 2006-05-25 8:15:54 PM

The Ethics Commissioner is really the Transparency Commissioner. The focus is on making sure that there are no hidden motivations, specifically personal enrichment, in the decision-making process. It is not to judge the quality of the decisions, to determine the righteousness of a law, nor to measure those decisions against some external metric (such as a list of election promises). The Ethics Commissioner does not determine right or wrong, just that the decision was arrived at with no hidden influence.

Posted by: Steve Janke | 2006-05-25 9:16:51 PM

I'm not telling you that the commissioner should investigate election promises or vet legislation - I'm telling you that trying to make sure that the robbery and fencing operations which take place in Ottawa are done "transparently" and with "no hidden influence" is like trying to ensure that no vows of chastity are broken in a whorehouse.

The reason that no "ethics commissioners" were deemed necessary in the last 1000 years or so of parliamentary legislatures was because parliaments had nowhere near the stranglehold on a nation's private business that they do now, and therefore their potential for harm was limited. This was because there was an actual understanding of and respect for the right of private property, which all of the members of the commons (who were represented property owning commoners), peers and royalty understood. None of these branches dared to abuse the property of the others, because they did not wish their own property to be stolen in turn. Each legislator was his own ethics commissioner. Once the doors of parliament were kicked down and non-property owners gradually assumed complete control over that which they did not own - in the name of a religion called "democracy" - it was only a matter of a few decades before the creation and enforcement of laws degenerated into the wholesale thievery which you see now.

Think of the nation's property as having been pooled into a single, vast commons. When no farmer owns his pastures anymore, then there is no reason any more for the farmer to limit how much time his goats spend eating the commonly owned grass. One does not appoint an ethics commissioner to supervise the grazing of goats - a goat only knows that if he sees grass he must eat it, and the farmer knows that if he doesn't turns his goats loose in the pasture, someone else's goats will get all the grass.

If you want to see your money handled more ethically, you should spend more time trying to keep it in the hands of someone who you know will treat it with absolute ethics and morality, and less time trying to find someone who will enforce undefinable and legally meaningless rules such as "transparency" and "influence".

Posted by: Justzumgai | 2006-05-25 10:46:32 PM

Re: Justzumgai's last paragraph.

I think I have found the person who I trust most with my money.

Just saw him moments ago in the hallway mirror.

Posted by: Set you free | 2006-05-26 12:20:52 AM

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