Ethics Is At Last An Issue

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Role of Government, Worth A Look

The phrase “culture of entitlement” used to refer to the public’s expectations of government: what they expected the government to give them. In recent years, this meaning has undergone a subtle shift. It now refers to what those in government expect the public to give them.

As the name implies, it is much more than a problem of a few bad apples. It is widespread, and it is systemic. The belief that you are entitled to claim grotesque amounts in personal expenses, that you are entitled to reward your friends with government jobs and contracts, that you are entitled to spend public funds to partisan ends — not just that you can get away with it, but that it is your due — requires, before it can take root, a system where such behaviour is possible. It takes a lot of practice before for the aberrant to become normalized.

Systemic problems call for systemic solutions. It is not enough merely to tighten the rules against certain practices, to post new watchdogs and impose heavier fines. Though these are all well and good, so long as the basic conditions that make for such abuses remain in place, the temptation will prove too great. It is as if one were to post a sign, outside a yard strewn with gelignite and fuses, reading: “No Bomb-Building Allowed.”

So the Conservatives’ new package of accountability measures, impressive as it is, still merits only two cheers, or perhaps two and a half. The reforms it contains are serious, substantive and broad-ranging, going far beyond the limited list of measures advanced by the NDP. They would mean profound changes to the way Ottawa does business. And they do not go nearly far enough.

First, the good news. The Conservatives have rejected that dreadful old Parliament Hill bromide to the effect that “governments defeat themselves.” The public has been burned once too often by parties that ran against “corruption” without saying how they would change anything. Trust Me won’t cut it any more. Accordingly, the Tory pledges are specific and concrete, the kind that are hard to wriggle out of. Indeed, Stephen Harper promises the Federal Accountability Act, legislation enacting the reforms, would be the first bill his government would pass.

There is much emphasis on policing. The powers and independence of the existing officers of Parliament — the auditor-general, the ethics, privacy and information commissioners, the registrar of lobbyists, etc. — would all be strengthened. To these would be added a Public Appointments Commission, to ensure the merit principle governs hiring decisions, and a Parliamentary Budget Office, to ensure MPs on all sides of the House were working off the same set of numbers.

There would be tighter limits on lobbying, legal sanctions for conflict of interest, broader scrutiny of Crown corporations and other murky corners of the public sector. All, as I say, well and good.

But what Adscam has confirmed — I would say revealed, but it was already apparent in any number of previous Liberal scandals — is that certain exchanges, by their nature, cannot merely be regulated: they have to be prohibited altogether. What all the scandals have in common is the blurring of boundaries that ought to be clear, the converging of spheres that ought to be separate: business and politics, ministers and civil servants, public sector and private. What’s needed is to “snip the wires” connecting them, the conduits by which money and influence change hands.

The Conservatives, to be fair, go some distance on each of these. Thus, the party would ban all corporate and union political donations (and severely limit individual contributions), closing the loopholes left by the Liberal reforms.

But when it comes to cutting off the flow of funds in the other direction, from government to business, the party is less sure: where once it opposed corporate welfare on principle, it now wants the auditor-general to do a “value for money” audit of the $26-billion in grants handed out every year.

Proposals to prevent ministers from interfering with the civil service are in a similarly cautious vein. The party would make deputy ministers directly accountable to Parliament for the administration of their departments. And it would require ministers to issue written instructions to their deputy in the event of a disagreement.

Fine: but why not do what New Zealand has done, and structurally separate minister and department, as purchaser and provider, respectively, of public services? The political minister formally contracts with the deputy minister to provide certain services to the public, then leaves him to get on with it.

But perhaps I’m asking too much. These are heady days: ethics is at last an issue in Canadian politics, and all the parties are coming forward with reforms. And to think all it took was the theft of $150-million.