While most everyone would say that it is a conflict of interest for Prime Minister Harper’s chief of staff Nigel Wright to meet and be lobbied by Barrick Gold or any of the dozens of companies in which he has friends and/or financial or other interests, in almost every case the lobbying is legal.
In fact, in almost every case it is legal for Wright, and every Cabinet minister and staff person, every senior government official, and every MP and senator and their staff to lobby and make decisions on issues and matters in which they and their families and friends have financial or other interests.
The least powerful decision-makers in the federal government have the strongest ethics rules.
This is all legal because of a huge loophole added in December 2003 by Paul Martin to the federal Cabinet ethics law, and that MPs and senators included in 2004-2005 in their new House and Senate ethics codes. Stephen Harper promised in the 2006 election to remove the loophole from the Cabinet ethics law, but he broke his promise.
Prime Minister Harper put stronger ethics rules into his Accountability Guide for Cabinet ministers, but those rules do not apply to Cabinet staff, and so far he has ignored every violation of those rules. In addition, the staff of MPs and senators are not covered by any ethics rules (except senior staff in the Leader of the Opposition’s office).
The effect of the Martin loophole is that no one is considered to be in a conflict of interest unless they are dealing with a very specific matter such as a merger, takeover, licence, approval, or contract (and only about 1 percent of their decisions are about these things).
To put it another way, federal ethics rules do not apply to 99 percent of the decisions and actions of federal politicians and senior policymakers.
These very weak rules, combined with the very weak enforcement attitude and record of federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson (who has interpreted rules in many cases in very questionable ways that let Cabinet ministers and MPs off the hook), and the weak enforcement powers of the Senate Ethics Officer, mean that it is effectively legal for all federal politicians, staff, and senior government officials to be unethical.
Ironically, the ethics rules that apply to the most junior government employees require them to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest in all their decisions and actions.
In other words, the least powerful decision-makers in the federal government have the strongest ethics rules (although these rules are also not effectively enforced because of the generally weak enforcement attitude and record of internal auditors, senior government officials, and the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner).
The Cabinet ethics law (called the Conflict of Interest Act) and the MPs’ ethics code will be reviewed by House committees this fall, and the Senate is also reviewing its code. We can only hope that they will close this huge loophole (and many others) and strengthen enforcement so that everyone involved in federal politics will, finally, be required to be ethical.
Duff Conacher is a board member of Democracy Watch.
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