The year old-fashioned honour in politics went missing

In politics, 2013 might be remembered as the year politicians tainted by scandal decided that the concept of honour no longer required them to step aside.

Does anyone resign anymore at the hint of scandal?

It was a year on Parliament Hill and in political circles around the country when the concept of an honourable resignation didn't seem to be on the menu. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In politics, 2013 might be remembered as the year politicians tainted by scandal decided that the concept of honour no longer required them to step aside.

The actions of three Conservative senators have done more harm to the government than any other circumstance since Stephen Harper became prime minister in 2006.

Yet there has been no flurry of resignations — not one of them bowed out, or even stepped aside voluntarily from caucus. The Senate suspended them without pay, but they are still "honourable senators."

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford denied repeatedly that he had smoked crack cocaine, right up until he blurted out the truth in a media scrum. He refused to resign as mayor, even as he was stripped of most of his power by city councillors.

'What does it mean to assume responsibility if you say, "Well, I did it, but I'm carrying on.'"— Greg Levine, lawyer

The mayor of London, Ont., Joe Fontana, has refused to step aside, despite RCMP charges for allegedly using a government cheque to pay for part of his son's wedding reception while he was a Liberal cabinet minister.

A different world

"What does it mean to assume responsibility if you say, 'Well, I did it, but I'm carrying on," asks Greg Levine, a lawyer who specializes in government ethics. 

It seems a different world from 1986 when Sinclair Stevens, a cabinet minister in Brian Mulroney's government, resigned his post because he'd been accused of abusing the blind trust all cabinet ministers are required to set up to hold their financial portfolios while in government.

"Just the mere accusation against me is what was used to have me resign," said Stevens, reached by phone at his law office in Newmarket, Ont.

Then Stevens had to resign again, this time as a candidate in the next election. He'd easily won his nomination, but realized the NDP was planning to make his case an election issue.  

"I resigned rather than run," he explained. "[Prime Minister Brian] Mulroney phoned me, I can recall, and said he thought it was unfortunate." 

He spent half an hour on the phone with Mulroney, but, looking back, isn't bitter about not getting the chance to face the ultimate test in the face of a scandal — letting voters decide his fate.

Stevens was never criminally investigated, but a public inquiry found him guilty of conflict of interest. Seventeen years later, a federal court judge overturned the conflict of interest finding

Ethics were different at the time, he sums up.

Resigned over tainted tuna

In 1985, Fisheries Minister John Fraser resigned from Mulroney's government over what was known as the tainted tuna scandal. He says no one ever became ill from eating the Starkist canned tuna in dispute, but he had overturned the decision of a food inspector to reject a large batch of the tinned fish.

Fraser, in a phone interview from B.C., said he told Mulroney, "In the interests of the Conservative Party and in the interest of the public, I am prepared to step aside."

He never questioned that he should resign in order to protect the party and Mulroney's government.

Concept of honour disappearing?

Levine said the concept of honour seems to be disappearing in political life, but stresses the operative word is "seems."

He cites Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay, who resigned after a 25-year career in public service, calling him an interesting contrast to Fontana.

"He resigned because of what the Charbonneau Commission in Montreal was saying about corruption, without even being charged. He said there's too much concern about this, it's affecting our work, so he resigned."

Levine also points out that Conservative MP Michael Chong resigned from a cabinet position simply because he disagreed with Prime Minister Harper about recognizing the Québécois as a nation, which Chong felt would encourage separatists.

On the other hand, said Levine, Peter MacKay, when he was defence minister, "hops on a [search and rescue] helicopter and uses it in a certain way" during a fishing trip. Should MacKay have resigned?

''He used public property for private use, or at least that's how it looks," Levine said. "I would have said that's a resigning issue — you just don't do that. You could come back into cabinet in a year. But you surely resign over such a mistake."

Currently, the bar seems to have been reset, where resignations are required only when a police charge leads to a conviction.

But long before it ever came to that extreme, Fraser said he made a resolution when he took office.

When he went into cabinet he instructed his staff to make sure he never inadvertently benefited by taking public money.

"One thing I couldn't live with was an incident that in some way I seemed to be getting some financial advantage that I wasn't entitled under law to."