Government controversies and scandals are messy, sometimes complicated and alarmingly frequent. Every time, I’m left wondering what else we – the people the politicians represent – simply don’t know about?
Currently, the public is struggling to figure out: the truth about money laundering in this province; the extent of flagrant spending in the B.C. Legislature; and the possibility the executive branch at the federal level attempted to unduly influence decision-making by the former attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould.
The controversy in Ottawa underscores the need for full transparency, beefed-up accountability and deterrent-level consequences for ethical breaches.
We are still frustratingly short on details.
It’s discouraging to realize the only reason we have an inkling of alleged improper behaviour and undue influence is because Wilson-Raybould resigned.
This prompted new attention to last October’s justice legislation legalizing deferred prosecution agreements. It was tacked onto a federal omnibus budget bill. SNC Lavalin’s lobbying history has also come under increased scrutiny.
The usual partisan antics ensued with Liberals flocking to the defense of the prime minister and his office and the opposition loudly claiming the sky was falling.
These things generally follow a predictable path. Denials, deflection, obfuscation, outright mistruths and attempts to use semantics to slither out of the clutches of responsibility all create a thick smokescreen that seldom clears even when the fire is eventually extinguished.
The prime minister’s explanation morphed on a daily basis, from denials, to the softening of those denials while still maintaining “appropriateness,” and the resignation of his principal secretary Gerald Butts.
Will the details and exact truth ever be known?
Conflict-of-interest laws generally only refer to pecuniary conflict — the decision maker and/or immediate family members benefiting financially from a decision. It may seem straightforward, but there are more grey areas than black-and-white ones. It can also be onerous to prove conflict of interest, as legislation generally relies on self-reporting or a court order.
When it comes to ensuring ethical behaviour by our elected politicians, things are even more nebulous.
Many Canadians, myself included, were reassured on hearing Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion had opened an investigation into the allegation Wilson-Raybould was unduly pressured by the Prime Minister’s Office.
However, there are no set timelines or any requirement for the resulting findings and reports to be made public. The only penalties the ethics commissioner can apply are monetary, up to $500, and only in cases of failure to report. It’s better than nothing.
Ombudsman and commissioner offices cost money, but they are cost effective, if they are given teeth. A cost-benefit evaluation, done from the point of view of the public, favours more of this type of accountability.
How much is obscured from public view?
We cannot hold politicians accountable for behaviour we don’t know about.
For example, the recent Plecas Report raises the serious questions about spending from the public purse and entitlements.
In this case, a politician on the outs with the opposition and only tangentially aligned with the ruling party made the situation public. Party politics shouldn’t trump accountability to the public.
Locally, recommendation 57 of Maple Ridge’s Open Government Report from the Citizen’s Representative Group calls for the establishment of a Maple Ridge Ombudsperson to uphold the democratic principles of openness, transparency and accountability. The mandate of this arms-length position would be to ensure every person in Maple Ridge is treated fairly in the provision of municipal services, and to promote and foster fairness in public administration.
Look at what is happening with politicians and governments across North America. We humans are notoriously good at rationalizing, to ourselves and others, self-serving behaviours.
Politicians are only human. It’s at our peril that we ignore the evidence of the need to shine a light into every nook, cranny and corner of our public offices.
Katherine Wagner is a member of the
Citizens’ Task Force on Transparency, a former school trustee and member of
Golden Ears Writers.