Manitoba’s political-ethics code purely symbolic

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Did you know that Manitoba is the only jurisdiction in Canada where there is a code of ethical conduct for political parties and their members? The code declares that all political participants “will accept responsibility to act in such a manner as to maintain and enhance public confidence in the integrity of the political process.” It goes on to list a number of activities where citizens should expect high ethical standards.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/10/2018 (1557 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Did you know that Manitoba is the only jurisdiction in Canada where there is a code of ethical conduct for political parties and their members? The code declares that all political participants “will accept responsibility to act in such a manner as to maintain and enhance public confidence in the integrity of the political process.” It goes on to list a number of activities where citizens should expect high ethical standards.

Don’t blame yourself if you are unaware of the code. It can only be found on the website of Elections Manitoba; none of the registered political parties has it posted on their websites and it appears none of them has taken all the necessary steps to bring the code to life. The media never mention the code when reporting on the too-frequent incidents of wrongdoing and less-serious ethical lapses of political parties and their members.

The code arose out of allegations that during the 1995 election, political operatives for the Progressive Conservative government arranged for “independent” Indigenous candidates to run in several constituencies with the hope of diluting the vote for the NDP. Elections Manitoba investigated the allegations but could not find enough evidence to proceed within the two-year time limits for prosecutions under the election laws.

Finally, in 1998, Progressive Conservative premier Gary Filmon agreed to hold a judicial inquiry into the vote-splitting scandal. The subsequent report (March 1999) recommended that political parties should voluntarily adopt a shared code of ethical conduct and, should they fail to do so, legislation should be introduced. Subsequently, the code was developed with the assistance of Elections Manitoba and accepted by all the parties.

Here are the things you need to know about the code:

Adherence to the code is voluntary, and the parties are individually responsible for promoting and enforcing its provisions within their own ranks. The parties are expected to identify a designated official to whom members can bring matters of ethical concern. Examples might be attempts at vote suppression, personal attacks on opponents and hiding financial contributions that should be reported. There is also a provision that requires the parties to inform Elections Manitoba of what steps they have taken to promote and to enforce the code.

Self-regulation may have been the only basis on which the parties would accept a code. The fact is that parties are competitors, but they also largely set the rules of political competition. When a “win at all cost” mentality takes hold, politicians will be tempted to engage in ethically dubious behavior, often based on the reasoning that failing to do so gives a competitive advantage to their political opponents.

They may also tell themselves that if they are elected, they will be exemplary public officials who adhere to the highest ethical standards.

Beyond this fundamental problem, here are some other specific weaknesses of the code. There is no legal requirement for the parties to indicate how they are continuing to promote and enforce the code. A search of the party websites turns up no identification of a “safe channel” through which a member might bring ethical concerns to attention of the party leadership.

The parties are not required to report annually to Elections Manitoba and to the public any ethical transgressions that have taken place and how they were handled within the party. There is no continuing oversight by Elections Manitoba on how the code is being implemented within the parties, and the impartial election agency has no legal authority to impose sanctions on parties and their members for violations of the provisions of the code. Parties can opt out of the code at any time.

Defenders of the code argue that it represents a public affirmation by political parties that they will adhere to the highest ethical standards. However, there is no public documentation of the code process that would justify citizens accepting such assurances at face value. There is also no provision for regular reviews and updates to the code, which can only be changed with the consent of all the parties.

In an era of hyper-partisanship and new communications technologies, there are bound to be new ethical problems to be confronted.

Opinion surveys tell us that people are suspicious and cynical about the motivations and activities of politicians. The code was a response to this sentiment, but it has become largely a symbolic gesture. And because almost no one knows of its existence, the code does not even serve the purpose of reassuring the public there is integrity in the political process.

To improve this situation, parties should be required by law to report annually on how they promote and enforce the code and Elections Manitoba should be granted authority to monitor and report on how the code is operating.

Paul G. Thomas is professor emeritus of political studies, University of Manitoba.

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