The ethics issue in Ottawa is a lot like lapels on suit jackets. Width goes in and out of style constantly. With that thought in mind, let’s look at Justin Trudeau’s Christmas 2016 vacation.
You know the story: Justin, Sophie and the kids were guests of the Aga Khan on his private island in the Bahamas. The Trudeaus even hitched a ride on the billionaire’s helicopter (horrors!) to get to the island.
Mary Dawson, outgoing parliamentary ethics commissioner, ruled after months of investigation that this vacation was a no-no because it put the prime minister in a position of potential conflict of interest. She named and shamed him in a citation.
Trudeau believed he was covered by an exemption in the parliamentary code of ethics covering family friends because the Aga Khan was a friend of Trudeau’s father. Dawson ruled that this family friendship had expired because considerable time had elapsed since the men had seen each other.
Although there was no penalty beyond embarrassment, Trudeau now has the dubious honour of being the first prime minister to have an individual ethics violation on his resumé – plus, he generated a lot of tut-tutting from journalists.
But let’s put things in perspective. The same ethics commissioner ruled in 2011 that Lisa Raitt, a minister in the former Stephen Harper government, was not in conflict of interest when she attended a fundraiser organized by three lobbyists registered to lobby her department.
The indifferent reaction of the parliamentary press gallery could be summed up with one word: “Meh.” Suit lapels were wider then.
Curiously, the three lobbyists were sanctioned for putting that minister in conflict of interest. But that sanction was handed down by a different regulator, Karen Shepherd, the lobbying commissioner.
So, the lobbyists put Raitt in a position of conflict of interest. But Raitt wasn’t in a position of conflict. Clear so far?
The Harper government probably put the fear of God into every regulator in Ottawa, including Dawson and Shepherd, in 2008 when the government fired Linda Keenan, the nuclear safety watchdog, for doing her job. Keenan had ordered Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.’s (AECL) medical isotope facility shut down because the Crown corporation had failed to install promised safety pumps. The government had been trying to privatize AECL and found Keenan’s vigilance inconvenient.
Back then, Harper intimidated almost anybody in Ottawa, including journalists.
When Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer who endured the Harper government’s ongoing insults and personal attacks, called it quits, senior public servants refused to attend his retirement dinner for fear of offending their political masters.
But, an argument can be made that Trudeau is hardly the first prime minister to run afoul of ethical standards.
In 2001, Jean Chrétien pushed out the head of the Business Development Bank of Canada, a Crown corporation, and sicced the RCMP on the poor guy because the executive wanted to cancel a loan to a friend of Chrétien (prime minister at the time).
In those days, there was no parliamentary ethics watchdog. Instead, there was an ethics counsellor who worked directly for the prime minister – and everybody was fine with that because ethics were not in style then.
So, why should anyone outside Parliament Hill care whether ethics are in style or not? Because anyone can become caught up in a scandal unknowingly, or get caught up in political theatre.
And bureaucrats can be inconsistent in the way they enforce non-criminal regulations that often wouldn’t stand up in court.
Toronto billionaire Barry Sherman was being investigated by the lobbying commissioner at the time of his death because he hosted a fundraiser for Trudeau while registered as a lobbyist. Registration as a corporate in-house lobbyist is, in effect, voluntary, so Sherman could easily have avoided registering – and thus avoided investigation. Sherman had launched a legal challenge against the code of conduct. Let’s hope someone continues that challenge.
And we all should know the difference between principle and political theatre.