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Canadian Politics, Bernard Shapiro

Ethics Commissioner - let's get rid of the office

By arthur Weinreb, associate Editor,
Friday, March 24, 2006

The first Ethics Commissioner in Canada was Howard Wilson. He was not really a commissioner--he was a “counsellor” or advisor. Wilson was appointed by then Prime Minister Jean Chr´┐Żtien and reported to directly to him. It didn't take long before Wilson was quite properly referred to as the prime minister's lapdog. MPs from all sides of the House were demanding that legislation be passed to make the ethics counsellor a commissioner who would accountable not to the PM but to parliament.

In May 2004, Bernard Shapiro became the first Ethics Commissioner. His appointment was approved by members of all parties and he was required to report, unlike Wilson, to Parliament and not the prime minister. In his less than two years on the job, Shapiro's performance makes Howard Wilson look like a gold medal winner. although Wilson was often criticized for favouring the party that was led by the guy who appointed him, it was understood that this was more to do with the fact that he was not independent than any personal shortcomings that Wilson may have had.

Shapiro looked great on paper. He was an academic who had formerly been the principal of McGill University and appeared to be eminently qualified for the job. Less than two years into the position, Shapiro has been a total disaster. He has been severely criticized for each and every decision that has come out of his office. In a country where partisan politics are such that the parties cannot even agree on whether Canada should bother protecting itself from terrorist threats, all parties are agreed, albeit for different reasons, that Shapiro has to go. The question that we should be asking is if he does go, should we even bother trying to replace him.

Writing in the Toronto Sun, former Liberal cabinet minister Sheila Copps hit the nail on the head. Copps wrote that the Ethics Commissioner is supposed to be above politics, yet the legislation that he oversees is political in nature. If that is in fact correct, the problems that are emanating from the office of the Ethics Commissioner are more than just simply the lack of competence of the current occupant. Ethics investigations do nothing more than provide another vehicle for members to play politics with.

Shapiro recently ruled on a breach of ethics allegation that was made against Prime Minister Harper after he appointed David Emerson to the Cabinet as a Conservative. Discussions concerning the appointment were started within hours of Emerson's having been re-elected as a Liberal. The investigation found that Harper had not breached any rules and it was his right to make the appointment. Shapiro then went further and stated that Emerson's floor-crossing caused the voters to become more cynical about politicians. This was a perfect example of how ridiculous the notion of an ethics commissioner is. Harper's move was sleazy and an insult to all Canadians and especially for those who voted Liberal in the riding of Vancouver-Kingsway. But barring a criminal act having been committed, Harper, as prime minister, has the right to appoint anyone he wants to sit in his cabinet.

We have enough Criminal Code provisions dealing with bribery, breach of trust and other matters to deal with politicians who commit serious wrongdoing. Lesser infractions should be judged by the voters during the next election. No one in this country needed to have their tax money spent so that Bernard Shapiro can tell us that being reelected as a Liberal and becoming a Conservative cabinet minister two weeks later results in added cynicism. We know that. The decision should be left to us; not to some appointed bureaucrat whether or not he or she competent. The workings of the office of the Ethics Commissioner are nothing more than allowing the various parties to play politics with accusations and cross accusations. The way that the system works is that MPs get to decide who (Stephen Harper/David Emerson) get investigated and who doesn't (Paul Martin/Belinda Stronach).

By having an Ethics Commissioner, the government gives the impression that that they are doing something to root out unethical behaviour when in fact it is all for show.

Too much power has been taken away from ordinary Canadians. It's time to let the voters decide when a Member of Parliament should be punished for an ethical transgression. and if we elect an unethical government because we are bribed with more spending on health care--we deserve it.

Canada Free Press, CFP Editor Judi McLeod