Preliminary Thoughts on a Code of Conduct for Legislators

By Wilson, Howard | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Autumn 1995 | Go to article overview

Preliminary Thoughts on a Code of Conduct for Legislators


Wilson, Howard, Canadian Parliamentary Review


There has been much debate over the past several years on what might be an appropriate code of conduct for MPs and Senators. In July 1995 a Special Joint Committee of the House and Senate was established to look at this issue. The first witness to appear before the Committee was the federal Ethics Counsellor Howard Wilson. The following article, based on his testimony on September 18, 1995, provides an overview of the some of the issues facing the Committee.

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From my perspective, the best way to engage the debate is to clearly distinguish between the rules that are appropriate for legislators, whether in the House of Commons or the Senate, and those additional rules that are required of members of the executive branch, that is the Government in particular Ministers.

An important principle, in many ways an over-arching principle, is that MPs and Senators should not be prevented from having outside interests and being active participants in the community. Many argue that this is essential for the health of our parliamentary democracy.

For example in Ontario the Members' Integrity Act, 1994 passed the Legislative Assembly last year unanimously. It received Royal Assent on December 9, 1994, but has yet to be proclaimed. In its preamble, the first paragraph states:

"The Assembly as a whole can represent the people of Ontario most effectively if its members have experience and knowledge in relation to many aspects of life in Ontario and if they can continue to be active in their own communities, whether in business, in the practice of a profession or otherwise."

In the United Kingdom the Nolan Committee was set up by the Government "to examine current concerns about standards of conduct of all holders of public office". In its first report, in May of this year, in discussing outside employment for MPs, the Committee made the following comments:

"19. We believe that those Members who wish to be full-time MPs should be free to do so, and that no pressure should be put on them to acquire outside interests. But we also consider it desirable for the House of Commons to contain Members with a wide variety of continuing outside interests. If that were not so, Parliament would be less well-informed and effective than it is now, and might well be more dependent on lobbyists. A Parliament composed entirely of full-time professional politicians would not serve the best interests of democracy. The House needs, if possible to continue with a wide range of current experience which can contribute to its expertise."

"20. As well as having members with continuing outside interests, it is important that the House of Commons should continue to contain Members from a wide variety of backgrounds. We should be worried about the possibility of a narrowing in the range of able men and women who would be attracted to stand for Parliament if Members were barred from having any outside paid interests. We believe that many able people would not wish to enter Parliament if they not only had to take a substantial drop in income to do so but also ran the risk of seeing their source of livelihood disappear altogether if they were to lose their seats. Several of our witnesses regretted the tendency for Members of Parliament to be drawn increasingly from those who have had no employment experience outside the political field."

This led the Committee to conclude with the following recommendation:

"We recommend that Members of Parliament should remain free to have paid employment unrelated to their role as MPs."

Now contrast that with the situation applying to Ministers and other Members of the Government. Here, for some years, it has been considered essential that there be in place quite specific rules and obligations for these public office holders concerning conflict of interest. At the federal level, these rules, beyond disclosure of assets and liabilities and outside activities, specify that Ministers, and others, cannot engage in a profession, actively manage or operate a business or commercial activity, hold directorships or offices in a financial or commercial corporations, hold office in a union or professional association or serve as a paid consultant.

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