Inside Politics

Review of MP ethics regime more than a year overdue

Despite the relentless exuberance with which opposition and government members alike issue open letters calling on Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson to investigate their political opponents -- Conservative cabinet ministers Jim Flaherty and Denis Lebel's involvement with Oshawa port appointments, NDP MP Pat Martin's defence fund, and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's speaking fees, to name a few recent examples -- there appears to be little enthusiasm on the part of MPs to look into ways to tighten up the current ethics rules.

How else can one explain the apparent abandonment of the mandatory review of the MPs conflict of interest code, which has ostensibly been underway at the procedure and house affairs committee for a year and a half, but hasn't cracked the agenda since last fall?

Regular readers may recall that I first wrote about the uncertain status of the code of conduct review back in February.

According to the House rules, once every five years, the procedure and house affairs committee is required to "undertake a comprehensive review .. of the provisions and operations of the code," and report back to the House on its conclusions, as well as any recommendations for changes to the rules.

The committee acknowledged its statutory reporting duties last June, when it asked the House for an open-ended extension to the original deadline, claiming that further deliberations were necessary in order to give the code "the consideration it requires."

Since then, the review has come up for discussion on just two occasions, according to committee records.

The last time was in October 2012, when the committee agreed to set aside $1,675 for further study of the issue.

From that point onward, it appears to have disappeared entirely, at least as an active item of committee business.

So, what has changed since then?

Well, as far as the status of the review, nothing at all -- as far as I can tell, there has been no progress at all towards that promised report since last fall.

Outside the confines of the committee room, however, parliamentary ethics have been in the political spotlight since a seemingly endless series of Senate expense-related scandals began to surface.

As a result, MPs from all parties spent much of the spring session tripping over themselves and each other to proclaim their respective and collective commitment to full parliamentary accountability, while simultaneously reassuring the public that the Commons is all but immune to such institutional ethical lapses, as its occupants are elected, not appointed -- all the while allowing the ethics commissioner's modest suggestions on possible improvements to their own conflict of interest rules to languish at the bottom of the committee to-do list.

Among her proposals: dropping the threshold for disclosure of gifts from $500 to $30, empowering the commissioner impose fines of up to $500 on non-compliant MPs, and, perhaps most controversially, barring MPs from commenting publicly on complaints until her office has received the request and notified the target, and giving her more leeway to explain why she may choose not to pursue a particular matter.

If adopted, those last two recommendations could drastically cut down on the use of the code -- or, more precisely, the exploitation of the complaint system -- to score partisan points by removing the element of surprise, and giving Dawson the freedom to chastise members who lodge frivolous complaints.

The commissioner wasn't the only witness to appear during the brief period of time in which the committee was actively engaged in studying the code: Behind closed doors, they heard from Conservative MPs Leon Benoit, Larry Miller and Brent Rathgeber -- who has, of course, since left that caucus -- as well as Commons Clerk Audrey O'Brien and Deputy Law Clerk Richard Denis.

Until the committee reports back to the House, however, any recommendations or observations they may have put forward are protected by the veil of in camera secrecy, which means we'll just have to wait -- like the ethics commissioner, "with interest" -- to see which, if any, proposed changes to the code make the cut.

On the plus side, the committee charged with conducting a parallel-ish review of the (legally enforceable, non-voluntary) Conflict of Interest Act that governs ministers, parliamentary secretaries, political staff and senior civil servants had just finished putting the finishing touches on a draft report when the House rose for the summer holidays, which can be easily be resurrected in its original form when the committee gets back to work next month.

All of which leads one to the tentative conclusion that, while MPs can be trusted to exercise due diligence in examining the ethical guidelines they set for others, when it comes to governing themselves accordingly, a little outside oversight may be needed to ensure they get the job done.  

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