[Democracy Watch Logo][Op-ed]

Ethically challenged Paul Martin an example of systemic problem with parliamentarians

(The following opinion piece, by Duff Conacher, Coordinator of Democracy Watch, was published in slightly different form in The Globe and Mailon February 28, 2003)

For more information, go to Democracy Watch's Government Ethics Campaign page

When Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and other Liberals developed the promises in the now infamous "governing with integrity" chapter of their 1993 election campaign platform, they began a process of governing with deception and hypocrisy that continues to this day, as Paul Martin's recent ethics challenges reveal.

The deceptions have been numerous, and serious.  First, all of the integrity promises remain unfulfilled.  Second, the Prime Minister has repeatedly claimed that he has kept all the promises.  Third, Ethics Counsellor Howard Wilson has since being appointed in June 1994 acted as a frontman who rubberstamps almost everything Liberals do as ethical, even when ethics rules have been clearly violated.

This behaviour is not surprising given that the Ethics Counsellor has no independence nor investigative powers, is completely controlled by the Prime Minister, and reports in private to Chrétien about conflicts involving ministers.  The American word for defence lawyer is "counsellor" and Wilson has lived up to this definition by consistently defending the actions of many ministers.

The hypocrisy of the Liberals has also been rampant.  For example, in testifying in 1992 before a parliamentary committee considering proposed ethics rules for all MPs and senators, then Liberal opposition MP Paul Martin stated that a fully independent, fully empowered ethics watchdog was needed "to provide the public with the assurance that individual transactions which might be in conflict have been handled in a fair and legitimate manner."

Since being elected in November 1993, however, Martin has been relying on the lapdog Ethics Counsellor to clear him of conflicts of interest, as has the Prime Minister and all Cabinet ministers.

Most recently, Martin is facing allegations that he has violated ethics rules in the past, and will not be able to avoid violating them in the future, because of his ownership of CSL Group Inc. shipping company, among other large, multinational, wide-ranging companies.  In response, Martin has turned to the lapdog Ethics Counsellor to clear him of past conflicts, and to come up with proposed rules and opinions that will sweep away future conflicts.

But as Martin himself maintained in 1992, only an investigation by a truly independent ethics watchdog of Martin's actions in his more than eight years as Finance Minister, and CSL Group's activities through the same time period, could ensure that transactions between him and the company were handled in a fair and legitimate manner.

The Liberals clearly view ethics as they view many other issues, but compromising principles and taking the half-hearted, pragmatic middle path is not an approach that maintains high ethical standards.  Governing ethically is not a suit you change to fit the situation, but instead requires a principled approach to all actions, and all decisions.

The deeply corrupt attitude the Liberals have shown toward government ethics unfortunately runs through much of parliament, as revealed by the reactions of many MPs and senators to Chrétien's recent reform proposals, which are now before Parliament. These proposals, if passed, will finally fulfill the Liberals' 1993 promises to enact ethics rules for all politicians, and to establish an effective ethics watchdog and enforcement system.

Even though Chrétien's proposed enforcement system is still full of loopholes, MPs and senators are trotting out the same old, elitist arguments they have used to derail sin ce 1987 six past attempts to pass the ethics rules.

Martin has jumped on this obstructionist bandwagon, advocating in his own self-interest by claiming that strong, independently enforced ethics rules will discourage people like him from becoming politicians.  In doing so, he reveals how little regard he has for upholding the public interest.  Good people who want to contribute to public life by protecting the public interest have nothing to fear from strong, effectively enforced ethics rules.

In contrast to Martin's and others' corrupt attitudes, the Supreme Court of Canada in a 1996 case set out a principled government ethics standard, writing that "given the heavy trust and responsibility taken on by the holding of a public office or employ, it is appropriate that government officials are correspondingly held to codes of conduct which, for an ordinary person, would be quite severe."  The court also wrote that "it is not necessary for a corrupt practice to take place in order for the appearance of integrity to be harmed," and concluded "that our democratic system would have great difficulty functioning efficiently if its integrity was constantly in question."

The current ethics rules uphold the Supreme Court's high standard, and clearly require ministers, especially a Finance Minister or Prime Minister, to sell large, wide-ranging companies such as Paul Martin owns.  Ministers must "arrange their private affairs in a manner that will prevent real, potential or apparent conflicts of interest from arising" and in a manner "that will bear the closest public scrutiny, an obligation that is not fully discharged by simply acting within the law."

Owning a large company that is regulated by several government departments while being a Finance Minister or Prime Minister causes so many conflict of interest situations that selling the company is the only principled, ethical option.

Instead of embracing these rules and this ethical option, Martin is seeking loopholes in the current ethics rules as the Liberals have many times in the past, and relying on the lapdog Ethics Counsellor to ignore ethics rules and clear Martin as he has cleared other ministers of conflicts many times in the past.

Martin has also suggested that the proposed new ethics watchdog (if it is created) will set new ethics standards that he is prepared to meet.  What he hasn't acknowledged is that under the current proposal before Parliament the new watchdog be appointed by Cabinet (in other words, by the next Prime Minister).  If Martin is that next Prime Minister, the disgustingly unethical game that the Liberals have been playing for the past nine years will continue unabated as Martin will be able to select his own ethics lapdog.

Canadians deserve a better, more honest, more ethical federal government, and a fully independent, fully empowered ethics watchdog enforcing loophole-free ethics rules are key parts of such a government.  Martin's attitude and past and recent actions make it clear he does not understand these democratic fundamentals, and that he has no intention of giving Canadians the government they deserve.