Canada scored well in a recent international government corruption assessment but the organization that did the assessment said there are still big holes in transparency legislation.
Global Integrity, a non-profit organization that tracks corruption trends around the world gave Canada the third highest overall integrity score tied with Spain, Japan, Italy and Romania. Global Integrity uses teams of local researchers and journalists to assess a government's openness and accountability.
But although Canada did well, it also had noteworthy shortcomings said Nathaniel Heller, managing director for Global Integrity.
Those shortcomings are because of a lack of transparency for gifts to legislators and judges. Legislators are not required to disclose assets worth less than $10,000 and there are no rules at all for gifts to judges. Disclosure forms for senators are kept confidential, making them inaccessible to the media or watchdog groups.
"It's kind of odd that in a country like Canada, citizens don't have access to Senator's asset disclosures. That's stuff we see in Tanzania," chuckled Heller. "It's strange to see in Canada."
Heller said he wasn't surprized the Conservative government's recently implemented Federal Accountability Act didn't address gift disclosures for senators and others because these were particularly touchy issues.
"These are the issues where the rubber really meets the road," said Heller adding that vested interests were most likely to fight back against that kind of legislation. "It becomes very uncomfortable for vested interests."
Heller used the hypothetical example of a piece of banking legislation approved by the senate after going through parliament. If several senators had received gifts from a lobbying group on behalf of banking interests, it is currently almost impossible for that to be brought to light. Those that benefit from that secrecy would oppose legislation that would force disclosure.
"These challenges are not unique to Canada per se," said Heller. "These are really the places where corruption nests in a lot of countries."
The upside however, is that it is not difficult to make transparency reforms.
"Frankly they're easy fixes if there is a desire to fix them...Those are not issues of money or time, they're just political will issues."
In other words, such changes don't require reforming the bureaucracy or costly administrative restructuring, but would require a strong political will.
"These aren't ten year ten billion dollar reforms, they're pretty quick and easy ones."
Vic Toews, President of the Treasury Board and MP for southeast Manitoba, welcomed the report in a recent statement and took the opportunity to tout the government's Federal Accountability Act.
"Since taking office, thanks to the Federal Accountability Act, this government has made real changes for whistleblowers, cleaned up election and political financing, toughened ethics rules and improved accountability," said Minister Toews.
"We've also strengthened the role of the Ethics Commissioner; cleaned up government procurement, polling and advertising; given more powers to the Auditor General; improved audit and accountability functions within departments; and toughened the rules dealing with lobbying."
In the statement Toews admitted there was still room for improvement, particularly term limits and elections for Senators. But the statement did not address the transparency reforms recommended the Global Integrity report called for.
Minister Toews did not respond to a request for comment on this by press time.
Bulgaria and the United States tied for first place in the report with a score of 87 compared to Canada's 81. Latvia scored well with 84.
While some Canadians may be surprized to hear that the United States outranked Canada despite procurement scandals in Iraq and other controversies, Heller said the U.S. has always been a leader in anti-corruption measures.
"You shouldn't conflate scandals with higher corruption," said Heller. "Scandals often indicate that the [anti-corruption] mechanisms are working, that journalists are getting access to information and are free to expose it, and that internal anti-corruption mechanisms can ferret this stuff out and push forward prosecution or cases. What is often scarier is silence."
Heller said countries that don't have any scandals may be more corrupt because the silence reflects a lack of transparency or suppression on reporting on corruption issues.
"You're never going to eliminate corruption entirely, that's a pipe dream. The best you can do is curb, prevent and punish it."