Trudeau’s ethical challenges continue

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Late last year we learned of the latest in a series of ethical misdeeds by a member of the Liberal federal government during two terms in office. This time it was Mary Ng, minister of international trade, who was found guilty by the ethics commissioner of having violated the conflict-of-interest law by awarding two contracts for communications services to a political friend.

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Opinion

Late last year we learned of the latest in a series of ethical misdeeds by a member of the Liberal federal government during two terms in office. This time it was Mary Ng, minister of international trade, who was found guilty by the ethics commissioner of having violated the conflict-of-interest law by awarding two contracts for communications services to a political friend.

In a year-end interview, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed this case as another unfortunate “mistake,” and went on to describe the disclosure as a positive sign that the integrity system in government is working as it should be, because the offending minister had apologized and promised not to do it again.

As someone who studies ethics in government, I find the Trudeau government’s track record on ethical matters in general, not solely in relation to conflict of interest violations, to be disappointing and frustrating. This is a prime minister who regularly engages in theatrical “virtue signalling” intended to demonstrate his own good character and the moral correctness of his government’s policy positions.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has gained a reputation for ethical lapses and half-hearted apologies. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press files)

There appears to be a culture of entitlement and righteousness within the government that comes from the top.

In response to the Ng case, an editorial in the Globe and Mail on Dec. 16 declared “No other government has as poor a record (in terms of ethics violations) since the Office of the Ethics Commissioner was first created in 2004.” While I find the Trudeau government to be ethically challenged, the Globe’s conclusion is misleading.

The Conflict of Interest (COI) Act was passed in 2006 (not 2004) and came into force in 2007, so the only previous governments subject to oversight by the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner were those led by Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper. There were at least three official COI violations and numerous allegations directed at those governments.

Integrity in government depends upon rules, oversight mechanisms, a range of penalties and reflective, responsible leaders who are committed to modelling ethical behaviour and accepting full accountability for mistakes.

The COI law is relatively weak. Unlike the Criminal Code, it does not involve offences leading to court processes. Instead the commissioner has authority to investigate, report on violations and, in limited circumstances, impose modest monetary penalties.

Based on the existing law, the main deterrent to bad behaviour is the risk of disclosure, and the negative publicity that fades as part of the quickly shifting news cycle.

Ethics rules, like the COI law, are meant to both reflect and reinforce a culture of integrity within government. Cultures consist of values, beliefs and norms of behaviour. Developing a culture takes time and constant attention; it is more like tending a garden than designing a machine.

Leaders play a key role in shaping cultures. In government, prime ministers should strive to nurture a strong, shared, “felt” culture of integrity and accountability.

Prime Minister Trudeau has failed to serve as a role model for such a culture. He was twice found guilty by the ethics commissioner of violating the COI law (an unpaid family holiday to the Aga Kahn’s private island, and his persistent pressuring of then-attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to offer SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement).

On a third occasion, the ethics commissioner made it clear Trudeau was spared a third negative finding (involving speaking fees paid by the WE Charity to his family members) only because the COI law was so poorly drafted it did not cover the situation.

Trudeau’s seemingly cavalier disregard of the ethics law, and his insistence that apologies are sufficient, sends a powerful symbolic message to other members of his government that ethical misdeeds can be almost consequence-free. In addition to Ng, ministers Dominic LeBlanc and Bill Morneau were also found to have crossed ethical lines.

While they suffered damage to their reputations, none of the ministers was forced to resign or was demoted in cabinet.

Nor were the prime minister or other ministers required to pay fines. As currently worded, the COI law allows for monetary penalties only for violations that fall under a limited number of provisions (failure to report assets, participation in decisions affecting their own interests, acceptance of gifts, etc.) of the act.

The purpose of penalties, the act makes clear, is to encourage compliance rather than to punish. The maximum penalty allowed under the law is $500, a paltry amount which the commissioner has proposed be raised to $25,000. A stronger law should involve a mix of monetary and non-monetary penalties (such as suspension from cabinet or service on Commons committees) to allow sanctions to fit the nature of the violations.

Regardless of how strong or weak the law, the prime minister, by his words and deeds, will set the ethical standards in government.

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

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