[Corruption, Character & Conduct: Essays on Canadian Government Ethics]

Article excerpt

The title of this review attempts to identify a common theme in these three books, which deal in different ways with current debates in Canadian political life, in particular what their authors see as a decline in our civic values. The first two are in the tradition of public administration, dealing with issues of ethics and corruption in the public sphere. The third is quite different. It is a philosophical reassessment of the Confederation debates and their implications for contemporary Canadian federalism and its institutions.

All three are written by political scientists. Three of the five authors teach at western universities: John Langford at the University of Victoria, Allan Tupper at the University of Alberta and Samuel LaSelva at the University of British Columbia. The other two, Ian Greene and David Shugarman, emphasize that their concerns are rooted in their earlier experiences at the University of Alberta and working in Alberta politics. As I grew up in Manitoba, the western Canadian background of the authors may explain some of my problems with the other common theme of the three books, which is that we should aspire to go back in time to capture something which was nobler and better.

I will deal first with the books which are most similar. The more recent book by Greene and Shugarman liberally cites the earlier work by Langford and Tupper. Honest Politics: Seeking Integrity in Canadian Public Life, claims in its Introduction "to present a framework for sorting out right from wrong in politics. We don't claim to have all the answers ... [and] have focused on three key areas of misconduct that need to be checked and repaired: conflicts of interest, undue influence, and dirty handed politics" (vi). The book starts from the premise that mutual respect, or what my grandmother used to call common civility, is the essence of a democracy and that five principles of democracy follow from this: social equality, deference to the majority, minority rights, freedom (and by this they seem to mean freedom of expression) and integrity. The emphasis throughout is on integrity and to some degree social equality.

The chapters that follow discuss the relationship between ethics and the principles of democracy and explore the nature of ethical duties and ethical problems. There are chapters on each of the three areas of misconduct and two chapters of prescriptions. Most chapters use a combination of examples drawn from newspaper reports, judicial and other inquiries into ethical shortcomings and the results of workshops or focus groups on the nature of ethical politics held with a series of academics, journalists, graduate students, former politicians and practitioners. It is not clear from the lists of participants what the criterion for selection was.

The major problem is that the book simply does not hold together. One reason may be that there are not enough cases of malfeasance to constitute a pattern of dishonesty or lack of integrity. Another may be that the authors exhibit more sensibility than sense in their concern about some of the cases cited. The chapter on conflict of interest covers fewer than 10 cases of real, potential or apparent conflict of interest over a 13-year period in both provincial and federal politics, scarcely an epidemic of lack of integrity. The one case of fraud (Michael Gravel) and the two cases of conflict of interest (Sinclair Stevens and William Vander Zalm) were corrected. Most would agree that the individuals should have known better but they seem to be isolated examples of lack of integrity, not evidence of a trend. In two of the other cases cited there was a failure to disclose loans made from the Progressive Conservative Party to Progressive Conservative cabinet ministers. This may be against guidelines for full disclosure but it is difficulty to accept that this is very serious case of conflict of interest. Greene and Shugarman suggest in the similar case of undisclosed benefits to the former premier of New Brunswick the late Richard Hatfield, that such conduct could have made him partial in situations where he had the discretion to provide benefits to donors (85). …