[Democracy Watch Logo] [Op-ed]

The following op-ed, by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher, was published in shorter, edited form in the Owen Sound Sun Times, Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Guelph Mercury on January 6, 2010, the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal and on Straightgoods.ca on January 7, 2010, the Kingston Whig Standard, January 14, 2010, and in the February 2010 issue of The CCPA Monitor
Honesty is the best government policy, and so it should be required by law

Some people say dishonesty should be allowed in politics, but nothing could be further from the truth.

The percentage of stimulus money actually spent, who knew what and when about Afghan detainees, how many bogus refugees are coming to Canada, whether other countries walked out on Canada at a climate-change negotiation meeting, the federal Liberals' position on Israel, one federal MP's position on gun control -- conflicting claims have been made publicly about these and many other federal Canadian political issues in the past few months, but those who made false claims in some cases faced no penalty, and in other cases the truth remains unknown.

Beyond regular conflicting claims made about many situations by Canadian politicians, government officials, lobbyists and interest groups (which means someone must be lying in each case), Canadian politicians of all stripes and all governments have broken election promises and, along with government officials, often misled the public in between elections too many times to list. 

Given the number of people hurt in various ways by this dishonesty, and how damaging lying is to reasonable, democratic debate, you would think that passing a law requiring honesty in politics would be a top priority of politicians across the country.

After all, politicians have passed many laws in the past requiring many Canadians to be honest in many ways.  From welfare applicants to taxpayers to corporate executives, it is illegal for Canadians to lie, and high penalties are in place to discourage dishonesty.

To become a citizen, to receive welfare, to receive tax deductions -- you better tell the truth.  If corporate executives lie in the corporation’s financial statements, shareholders can sue.  If a corporation’s advertisement is false, and six Canadians file a written complaint, the Competition Bureau must investigate and has the power to fine and require the corporation to cancel or correct the ad.

It’s even illegal for anyone anywhere in Canada to make a false claim about election candidates.

But when it comes to candidates lying to voters, and politicians and government officials misleading the public, almost anything goes.  In fact, most election laws across Canada make it illegal for candidates to make a written pledge to do something specific if elected.

Some politicians, such as in B.C., have passed laws making election fraud illegal.  And the preamble to the ethics rules for federal MPs and government officials say that they are expected to do their jobs with “honesty”.  But these laws and rules are vague, don’t involve definite penalties, and are not effectively enforced (To see details about former federal Ethics Commissioner Bernard Shapiro's refusal to enforce the honesty rule, click here).

Judges have ruled in lawsuits filed against promise-breaking politicians that voters are naive to believe election promises, and and so they have refused to punish misleaders (To see a 2000 B.C. court decision about the Glen Clark NDP government making a false claim during an election, click here -- To see a 2004 Ontario court decision about the Dalton McGuinty Liberal government breaking an election promise, click here).

And believe it or not, the federal Conservative government’s so-called “Federal Accountability Act” (FAA) actually decreases accountability significantly by deleting the honesty rule from the rules that apply to the Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers, ministerial staff, Cabinet appointees and senior government officials (and the Conservatives failed to include 22 other promised measures in the FAA and may not fully implement the FAA -- To see details, click here).

A few ridiculous reasons are usually given for not requiring honesty in politics and not penalizing misleaders.

Some say that when candidates make promises, they don’t know what changes might occur if they win the election, and therefore shouldn’t be penalized if they break promises.  The simple solution is for candidates to make promises that honestly set out the circumstances under which they would change direction (instead of the usually dishonest iron-clad promises they currently make).

If honesty was required, some candidates and parties may try to get away with making only vague promises -- but they would likely, over time, lose to those willing to set out a well-defined, contract-like platform that tells voters exactly what they will receive. 

Under such a law, politicians could be allowed to cite truly unforeseeable changes as a justifiable reason for breaking a promise.

Some say that politicians do face a penalty for breaking promises or being dishonest -- the penalty of losing public support and the next election.  However, promise-breaking politicians often don’t lose the next election, especially when their broken promise only affects a minority of the population.

Some say that there would be a flood of lawsuits if dishonesty in politics was made illegal.  While it may be that, as in war, the first casualty of politics currently is truth, very likely fewer politicians and government officials would be dishonest if they faced significant penalties, which would greatly reduce the number of cases.  As well, fear of many court cases didn’t stopped politicians from making dishonesty illegal for 500,000 Canadian corporations and millions of Canadians.

In addition, if honesty-in-politics laws gave the public the right to complain to ethics watchdog agencies, and the agencies the power to dismiss frivolous complaints, and to penalize misleaders only with high personal fines, even if complaints were numerous they could be dealt with fairly quickly, easily and inexpensively.

Finally, some make the highly speculative, and patronizing, claim that politicians and government officials can’t always be honest, because the public couldn’t handle the truth.  This incredibly undemocratic viewpoint assumes that politicians and officials have (for some unstated reason) some special mental capacity that allows them to be exposed to reality, while for everyone else to survive they must live in a fantasy bubble created by governments.

Those defending politicians switching parties in between elections give similarly dubious reasons why this type of dishonesty should be allowed (To see an op-ed on the subject of party-switching by politicians, click here).

If those giving these highly questionable reasons were thinking at all about voter rights, they would realize that it is impossible to vote as long as candidates can lie.  No matter how closely voters study and compare candidate or party platforms and statements, if they are untrue voters cannot make a choice.

So while the fundamental right to vote is guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it is violated across the country on a regular basis.  No wonder the number one reason non-voters give for failing to cast a ballot is lack of honesty in politics, and dishonesty is the top government accountability concern for voters.

An honesty-in-politics law would give voters a good reason to trust politicians again.

So, tell your municipal, provincial and federal politicians that you want them to pass a law giving the public an easy, low-cost way to file complaints about broken promises, party-switching, and false claims, with high penalties for violations, and do the same with candidates in every election. 

To be honest, you may not like the answer you receive.  But you will find out which of them want to make politics an honest living, and which are leaders as opposed to misleaders.

And, if we’re all lucky, that will eventually lead to a critical mass of politicians across Canada finally respecting voters wishes and rights, and passing the strong, strict honesty-in-politics laws all Canadians deserve.

Honesty is the best policy, but politicians and others involved in politics will never be able to make an honest living until honesty is required by law.

Democracy Watch's Honesty in Politics Campaign

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