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MPs still looking out for number-one, and that’s not you

If you don’t like the rules in your workplace, chances are you can do little about it. That’s especially true of those that prevent you from acting unethically.

If you’re a Member of Parliament, however, there’s an easy solution: change the rules.

That’s just what they did last week in the case of guidelines outlining conflict-of-interest scenarios involving lobbyists, for instance. And they did it in secret meetings, eventually gaining unanimous cross-party support – everyone wanted in on looser ethical standards.

In essence, MPs have exempted from public disclosure any money or other benefits they receive from their parties or riding associations. As well, volunteer labour they receive no longer needs to be reported or counted as a gift under the House of Commons conflict-of-interest code.

The latter, says Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch, opens the door for lobbyists, among others, to “volunteer” their time and not be seen as putting MPs in conflict with ethics standards.

“They’ll say this is aimed at situations, say, where a young student wants to see how the system works and so volunteers to help out in an election campaign. That’s fine, but it also applies to lobbyists who may volunteer to do a favour for an MP, which could lead to a conflict of interest.”

The rule changes came following eight secret meetings spearheaded by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, on which Kitchener-Conestoga MP Harold Albrecht serves (perhaps not surprisingly, he was unavailable to talk about the decision). The recommendations were quickly and quietly approved by all four parties in the Commons.

“They write the rules for themselves,” says Conacher, adding the changes follow a Federal Court of Appeal verdict in March in which the court sided with Democracy Watch’s argument that Rule 8 of the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct was being laxly interpreted.

“Democracy Watch has struggled for 15 years against federal government ethics lapdogs who have failed to enforce key ethics rules. The Federal Court of Appeal’s ruling is one of its biggest victories because, in our view, it makes it even more clear that the type of conduct prohibited by the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct includes lobbyists giving anything to or doing anything for the benefit of politicians and government officials they are lobbying,” he says.

With last week’s decision, MPs simply exempted some practices from their own ethics code.

“It’s another loophole, a step backwards in terms of ethical standards.”

Loopholes are a politician’s stock in trade: they have no interest in closing them, as it allows them room to weasel out of rules they don’t like. While Stephen Harper campaigned on an agenda of transparent government, pledging to close the loopholes that allowed ethically-challenged behaviour, his record shows actions did not follow words. His government is much less open than his predecessors’. And, when it comes to plugging holes in current rules for open and accountable government, Harper has addressed only a handful, Democracy Watch notes.

Even when the Conservatives have enacted new rules, they’ve been quick to ignore them. That was certainly the case with the fixed-date election law, which was tossed aside on the way to last fall’s trip to the polls.

That decision spawned yet another Democracy Watch legal challenge, which will be heard in court this fall. Conacher sees this case as a win-win situation: either the government will be found guilty of breaking its own law, or because the legislation was so vaguely worded, Harper will simply be painted a liar who broke his promise.

Let’s be clear, however, that this issue is not limited to any one party: all politicians have a vested interest in lax laws. None of the politicians wants to raise the standards for ethical behaviour because they may be called on to actually meet those standards. That’s a particularly big risk for Conservatives and Liberals, who traditionally form the government. Our elected officials are eager to talk a good game, but never to actually enact any of the ethical measures they profess to support.

The latest loosening of MP ethics is just another example of this divide, says Conacher.

The exemption of party and riding association funds is part of a longstanding tradition: leaders like to be able to parachute candidates into ridings, for instance, funding the campaign from the national office.

“This is another way in which parties can do things for MPs as a way of getting the MPs to toe the party line.”

The volunteer exemption is a new wrinkle.

“It opens the doors to lobbyists – that’s the more dangerous loophole,” he says.

He is also disturbed by the secrecy that surrounded this vote. Even the Ethics Commissioner agreed to talk with MPs in private. Conacher’s testimony at one meeting was, at his insistence, done in open session, the lone open voice.

“Independent watchdogs do not meet in secret with the people that they’re watching,” he says of the commissioner.

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