Finally! Repercussions for breaking the rules. Canadians have been witnessing a growing, flagrant disregard for the rules, for a level playing field, for fairness, for democracy.
With so many members of the political class flaunting their total contempt for the law, categorically denying any wrongdoing or refusing to take any responsibility for their actions, the Canadian democratic deficit is mounting.
Whether they are election rules, conflict of interest laws or ethics guidelines, the trust of the citizenry has been violated repeatedly.
Loyola Sullivan, a former Conservative politician and fisheries ambassador, is just one example. He was recently found to have violated the federal conflict of interest rules. The Act prohibits former public office holders from lobbying government for a year after they leave office.
Canada’s ethics commissioner found that Mr. Sullivan, who works with his brothers in the fishing company OCI, tried to influence government decisions on fish quotas before the year-long freeze was up. The penalty? There wasn’t one. A damning report and a few news stories, but that was the extent of any discomfort felt by Mr. Sullivan.
Now there is Rob Ford. The
controversial Toronto mayor was turfed for having wilfully disregarded the municipal conflict of interest laws. A judge ruled last week that he made a “deliberate choice” to break the law.
Justice Charles Hackland found that while the legislation governing conflict of interest matters at the City of Toronto was like “a sledgehammer” and did not allow for flexibility in decisions, he also noted that the law was important.
“It seeks to uphold a fundamental premise of our governmental regime. Those who are elected and, as a result, take part in the decision-making processes of government, should act, and be seen to act, in the public interest. This is not about acting dishonestly or for personal gain; it concerns transparency and the certainty that decisions are made by people who will not be influenced by any personal pecuniary interest in the matter at hand. It invokes the issue of whether we can be confident in the actions and decisions of those we elect to govern. The suggestion of a conflict runs to the core of the process of governmental decision-making. It challenges the integrity of the process,” Justice Hackland wrote.
The judge ruled that “outright ignorance of the law will not suffice, nor will wilful blindness as to one’s obligations.” Strong words. And strong repercussions.
In this case, the mayor voted on a matter in which he had a personal interest — a council order that he personally repay money he collected for his football foundation. This, under conflict of interest rules or guidelines is, of course, a big no-no.
Peter Penashue, the Conservative MP from Labrador facing an Elections Canada investigation for overspending and accepting a corporate donation during the 2011 election might now take note.
More troubling than the blatant indifference to conflict of interest rules are the breaking of elections laws in order to give one candidate an unfair leg-up over another, an unfair advantage.
And to make matters worse, after getting caught, do they apologize? Do they take responsibility for violating the trust of the people? No. More often than not, they use weasel laws and a weakened electoral oversight office, or blame a “fall guy” to avoid taking responsibility.
Is it any wonder citizens’ organizations, like the Council of Canadians, are challenging this contempt for our laws and our democracy?
In what is being described as a battle for democracy, the Council of Canadians is seeking to have the results of six federal ridings overturned because of the use of robocalls to deliberately misdirect voters. The case for systemic voter suppression appears strong.
Peggy Walsh is one of the voters (from an Ontario riding) who has teamed up with the council in the court case. She notes that “most people think the battle for democracy was won by previous generations and that we really don't have to do anything more about preserving democracy, but I think there are significant threats in our time and in our country to democracy."
Robocalls, campaign overspending, allegations of taking corporate donations and a 2011 Conservative Party of Canada guilty plea and $52,000 fine for breaking election spending rules. Broken election laws. Voter suppression. Conflicts of interest. Violated trust.
Ethics have become disposable. Taking responsibility, and sincere responsibility, for one’s actions in today’s politics has become a rare act indeed.
But perhaps with Justice Hackland’s decision, and perhaps because of the work of groups like the Council of Canadians, we have reached a turning point.
Perhaps if the penalties are great enough the contempt for the rules will stop. After all, in “do the crime, pay the time” Harperland, that’s how it is supposed to work, isn’t it?
Lana Payne is president of the
Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her column returns Dec. 15.