National Column: The Criminal Code doesn’t make up for a dearth of ethics

by Chantal Hébert

The ripples of the acquittal of Sen. Mike Duffy on 31 corruption-related charges should be felt well beyond the parliamentary pond.

The verdict is a stark reminder to all of Canada’s political class that the Criminal Code is no substitute for an ethical compass.

Public officials – be they elected or not – are held to a higher standard than just a clean rap sheet.

Being found not guilty of a crime does not de facto make one an ethical person.

In the Duffy affair, for instance, the coverup engineered by Stephen Harper’s palace guard was a scandal of epic proportions even if none of its PMO proponents was charged with a criminal offence. In his ruling, Judge Charles Vaillancourt expended some of his harshest words on the
manipulations Harper’s office undertook to avoid blame for the free-spending ways of a Conservative-dominated Senate.

The subtext of the verdict is an indictment of the practice of lowering the threshold for what is acceptable ethical behaviour at the partisan whim of an accountability-adverse government.

Harper was not the only or the first prime minister to conveniently determine that the responsibility for a major ethical malfunction lay with the offender(s) and the courts and not with his oversight or absence of it.

Jean ChrÈtien was a firm believer in shipping off files to the police that called into question the ethical culture of his government. The inference was that if no law had been broken, nothing really bad had actually happened. On that basis, he would not have set up a public inquiry into
the sponsorship scandal.

Just this week, Trudeau’s Liberals argued there was nothing wrong with justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould attending a Liberal fundraiser hosted by a prominent law firm because she did not break Parliament’s narrow conflict-of-interest rules. And yet her participation in the event
clearly contradicted the spirit of the current government’s self-imposed code of conduct.

With Harper out of office this story could have short political legs in the current Parliament. But the acquittal verdict does lend additional acuity to the unresolved issue of senatorial accountability.

It was the Duffy saga that led Trudeau to endeavour to make non-partisan appointments to the upper house. But absent a party affiliation, Trudeau’s senators will be not once but twice-removed from being held accountable by the electorate.

If Duffy had to win back his Senate seat in an election would he even run? Had they had to face voters at regular intervals, would he or his Senate colleagues have been less profligate in their spending?

There is a factual answer to those rhetorical questions in the shape of the case of former Conservative minister Bev Oda. She resigned after spending habits surfaced that failed to pass the public opinion smell test. Had she been a senator, Oda’s expensing of a $16 dollar glass of fresh orange juice would not have been a career-killing move

A word in closing on the bullying management style of the Prime Minister’s Office: Harper did not invent it. He only perfected it. Over the years it is not just senators who have agreed to act like pawns in the hands of PMO chess masters. From ministers on down, government MPs – with only too few exceptions – have had a long and not proud history of spineless compliance.

Just this week Conservative leadership candidate and former Harper minister Kelly Leitch told the CBC that she should not have accepted to front the announcement of a controversial “barbaric cultural practices” tip line in the last election. And yet this well-educated medical
doctor did agree to sell a promise that – in the context of the niqab debate – could only come across as doubling down on a highly divisive issue.

Being elected under a party banner should not involve placing one’s intellectual honesty and good judgment in the hands of the high-level political operators who staff the PMO. If voters wanted to watch trained seals and clown acts they would buy tickets to the circus instead of electing MPs to the House of Commons and having their taxes fund the Senate. Looking at the latest sequel in the Duffy saga their pocketbooks would be the better for it.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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