Canada

THAT ETHICS THING

Can the Liberals sidestep the tough questions?

JOHN GEDDES April 8 2002
Canada

THAT ETHICS THING

Can the Liberals sidestep the tough questions?

JOHN GEDDES April 8 2002

THAT ETHICS THING

Canada

Can the Liberals sidestep the tough questions?

JOHN GEDDES

Ethica1 questions have long plagued, or at least pestered, Jean Chrétiens government. The Prime Ministers own dealings with businessmen in his riding generated the hottest sparks in the fall 2000 election campaign—but Chrétien rode through that controversy all but unscathed. Still, a spate of troubling revelations so far this year suggest that he may not be able to indefinitely slip past questions of patronage and conflict of interest.

Three related issues could bring the apparently lax ethical standards governing federal politicians under new scrutiny:

1. Leadership races. Nowhere is the freewheeling quality of Canadian politics more evident than in a battle to become leader of a party. Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the federal chief electoral officer, has repeatedly called for the Elections Act to be extended to leadership races. The main result would be to force leadership candidates to disclose who gives them money. The rules for doing so are now left

entirely up to the parties. “Transparency in financing such a contest is arguably just as important as it is in an election,” Kingsley has written.

But for now, any transparency is largely unintended. Leaks from Liberal party headquarters led to revelations last month that a Paul Martin fundraiser, Calgary lawyer James Palmer, was also advising the Finance Department on tax policy for the oil and gas industry. Should a Martin campaign fundraiser also be under contract to his department? The federal ethics counsellor, Howard Wilson, told Macleans he discussed the matter with Martin and concluded that the Palmer situation “arose in pure innocence.” However, Wilson allowed that the relationship did “raise the possibility of the appearance of a conflict of interest.” So Palmer’s work with Finance was discontinued.

This case and others have prompted Wilson to draft proposals for how cabinet ministers pursuing leadership aspirations should behave. He plans to present those guidelines to Chrétien in about two weeks, and expects them to be made public. But don’t expect a set of rules stringent enough to satisfy the government’s critics. Duff Conacher, coordinator of Democracy Watch, an advocacy group for government ethics, says rampant overlap between partisan political roles and official government work must come to a stop. “In a democratic society you can’t have people who represent private interests building close ties and working relationships with politicians who have power,” Conacher says.

Wilson’s view is far less strict. For example, he has already decided that cabinet ministers seeking the Liberal leadership should be allowed to raise money from companies their departments directly regulate. “As long as the fundraising campaign is broad-based, and is not targeted at the clients of a minister’s department, then I see no difficulty,” Wilson says. How he, or anyone else, would know whether the usually secretive leadership fundraising efforts are broad-based or targeted, though, is hard to fathom.

2. Cabinet ministers’ clout. The issue of how those jockeying to succeed Chrétien behave is only one aspect of a swirl of ethical questions surrounding the power of cabinet ministers. The stormy exit of Alfonso Gagliano, the veteran public works

minister banished in January to an appointment as ambassador to Denmark, illustrates at least two. At the time Chrétien dispatched him to his diplomatic perch, Gagliano was under fire for using his influence to get jobs for friends at Canada Lands Co., a Crown corporation that answered to Public Works. Then, last month, news that under Gagliano the department paid $1.1 million for two nearly identical reports from Groupaction, a Montreal company with close connections to the Liberal party, raised questions about the potential to use such contracts to funnel federal cash to partisan backers.

Gaglianos replacement, Don Boudria, has asked the auditor general to examine the reports to decide if Ottawa should demand a refund from Groupaction. But such an audit will hardly address the deeper questions about the possibility of ministers using their offices for personal and partisan purposes. One problem: the government continues to routinely “solesource” many professional service contracts, like Groupactions consulting work, rather than putting them up for competi-

tive bids to ensure propriety. And there are no clear rules restricting a ministers dealings with Crown corporations. But Wilson promises to fill this vacuum soon. He says he has discussed guidelines for ministers’ dealings with government-owned enterprises several times with Deputy Prime Minister John Manley, and is close to finalizing them.

3. The ethics counsellor. With his guidelines for both leadership races and relations between ministers and Crown corporations in the works, Wilson may find his own role emerging as an underlying issue. Chrétien established the position in 1994—but broke a 1993 election promise to have the new ethics counsellor report direcdy to Parliament. Instead, Wilson answers to Chrétien alone. He has often been derided as more lapdog than watchdog. And just how closely he works with the Prime Minister is coming to light in an ongoing court case launched by Democracy Watch.

The group is challenging Wilson’s ruling that there was nothing wrong when BCE Inc., a giant Montreal company that lob-

bies Ottawa on many issues, gave the Prime Minister the rare gift of a golf game with Tiger Woods last September at the Bell Canadian Open Pro-Am. Among documents filed by the government with the Federal Court of Canada are a memo Wilson wrote, noting that in an evening telephone conversation with Chrétien, he alerted the Prime Minister to media inquiries about the golf game before the story broke. Other documents include a briefing note from Wilson on how the Prime Minister should respond if asked about the BCE gift in the House, and a letter from him reminding Chrétien to sign a mandatory disclosure document on accepting the dream golf game.

Overall, these documents leave little doubt that Wilson functions as part of Chrétiens political team—not as a detached adjudicator. With questions about power trumping principle in federal politics again coming to the fore, the absence of such an independent referee could taint any bid by the government to clear up the latest questions about its ethical standards. E3