|Box 35: Ethics Guidance in Canadian Legislation|
Firstly, public office holders can often forget what truly ethical conduct actually is in the real world of public life, and instead defend themselves by dwelling on what they understand to be the legal technicalities of words and concepts.
Secondly, rules are often extremely detailed about matters that should be self-evident to anyone with sound moral judgement, leaving the average citizen with the impression that those appointed to public life have no moral sense whatsoever. When this happens, it can do more to corrode public confidence than enhance it.
Canada's Federal government has taken an approach that assumes that public office holders do want to take ethical actions. It assumes they do want to earn a higher level of respect among citizens. For this reason, it has chosen not to take the other major approach to ethics - that is, rigidly codifying ethical behaviour, usually through a series of "Thou shalt not's." The Canadian approach to building and managing an ethics structure turns on avoiding possibilities for conflict of interest well before the fact. It focuses on working with people, based on the assumption that they do want to do the right thing.
The Federal Ethics Counsellor's Office deals with potential conflicts of interest and other ethical issues for those most likely to be able to influence critical decisions in the Federal government. This covers all members of the Federal Cabinet, including the Prime Minister. It covers their spouses and dependent children; members of Ministers' political staff; and senior officials in the Federal Public Service. The Office handles the monitoring of the assets, incomes and liabilities of those it oversees.
The Office is also responsible for the lobbyists Registration Act and the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct. These are designed to bring a level of openness to lobbying activities and ensure strong professional standards for the people involved in that work.
The Office, of course, does not replace the role of the police, prosecutors and judges when it comes to suspected breaches of the criminal law. Rather it deals with the grey area of situations that could realistically appear wrong to citizens, without ever being illegal. Its role is designed to provide advice and counsel to those in government, not to act as prosecutor, judge and jury. In practice, the Office works closely with those covered by the Code. They come with questions about how a given asset or interest should be treated, and the Office offers advice. It is also asked by the Prime Minister to investigate and comment on specific issues as and when these arise.
Does this seem to work? The present office-holder believes it does: "Does this work? I would say it does. The people that I deal with recognise that making the right decisions helps to ensure their long-term political health. They recognise that Canadians expect high standards of conduct and rightly so. They have generally gone out of their way to meet those standards."
Source: Pope, Jeremy (2000) TI Source Book (Chapter 20), http://www.transparency.org
Related Chapter 2C: Tools to Promote Ethics, Professionalism and Integrity