Ethics at arm's length [Editorial]                                                                                [Back]

National Post. Don Mills, Ont.: Jun 25, 2001. pg. A15


The Industry Committee of the House of Commons is calling on Prime Minister Jean Chretien to fulfill an ancient promise. Its 16 members, nine of whom are Liberals, want to strip Howard Wilson, the federal Ethics Counsellor, of his power to investigate lobbying irregularities. That responsibility, they say, should go to a newly created office because "lobbying is the concern of all Members of Parliament, not merely that of the Prime Minister." We agree.


So did the Liberals once upon a time. In the run-up to the October, 1993, national election, the party assured voters that a Liberal government would "appoint an independent Ethics Counsellor to advise both public officials and lobbyists in the day-to-day application of the Code of Conduct for Public Officials." Mr. Chretien and his colleagues wanted an independent counsellor following Sinclair Stevens's troubles in 1986, the 1988 Airbus affair, and the controversy surrounding the attempt to privatize Toronto's Pearson International Airport in 1993, events the Liberals said raised questions about the influence lobbyists had over the Conservative governments of prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell.


But instead of giving Canada an independent ethics counsellor who reports to Parliament and oversees the 1989 Lobbyists Registration Act, Mr. Chretien's Ethics Counsellor answers to the Minister of Industry -- who in turn answers to the Prime Minister -- when lobbyists are investigated. This system is worse than none at all, for it provides the government with the appearance of accountability when no accountability exists. As is obvious in the Grand-Mere affair, Mr. Wilson has no investigative powers or institutional independence. He reports his findings to Cabinet. Mr. Chretien, who is also Mr. Wilson's boss, decides what, if anything, Parliament gets to see.


Under the Lobbyists Registration Act, people who get paid to lobby politicians and government officials are required to register as lobbyists and file a detailed report with Industry Canada disclosing their lobbying activities and their clients. But the legislation has no teeth. Despite well-documented cases in which lobbyists have breached rules, nobody has ever been convicted using the legislation. Last summer, for example, charges under the Act were dismissed against a former unpaid aide to Mr. Chretien who helped 10 companies win more than $1-million in grants in return for a fee of 5% to 10% of the value of the grants.


The reason, said a Quebec Crown prosecutor, was that the Act is "too vague and that a conviction was unlikely under the circumstances." In response, John Manley, the minister of industry at the time, asked the Industry Committee to examine the Act's enforcement provisions. It now says the enforcement provisions need to be strengthened.


At Mr. Chretien's behest, the Liberals voted down an Opposition motion in February that would have created an independent ethics counsellor overseeing lobbyists. The Industry Committee and its nine Liberal members are properly asking the government to reconsider.