Parliamentarians and the New Code of Ethics

Article excerpt

The Act to Amend the Parliament of Canada Act (Ethics Commissioner and Senate Ethics Officer) and other Acts in Consequence, received royal assent on March 31, 2004, and was proclaimed two months later, on May 17. It has already made vast changes to the legal and administrative structure for ensuring ethical conduct of parliamentarians. This article deals mainly with two questions about the new code of ethics for the House of Commons. First, what are the substantive differences in approach between this code and the previous provisions of the Parliament of Canada Act? Second, how well does the code distinguish between public and private interests, and what are the implications of the distinctions it makes? A final section looks at progress that has been made in transforming the legislation into a working code of ethics for members of Parliament and public office holders.

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The new Act repeals the clauses of the Parliament of Canada Act dealing with questions of conflict of interest for senators (clause 14), and those dealing with conflict of interest for MPs (clauses 34 to 40). The repealed clauses are replaced with much shorter clauses which create the position of Senate Ethics Officer (clause 20) and Ethics Commissioner for the House of Commons (Clause 72), and list the duties, position, and powers of the two offices.

The Ethics Commissioner for the House of Commons also has responsibility for ethical matters related to public office holders, a category which include ministers of the Crown and ministers of state, political staff of ministers, parliamentary secretaries, full-time ministerial appointees designated by a minister of the Crown as public office holders, and other Order-in-Council appointments, with specified exceptions. For these public office holders the Ethics Commissioner applies the Privy Council Office's code of ethics (often referred to as the "Prime Minister's Code") rather than the code established for the House of Commons. Both the Senate Ethics Officer and the Ethics Commissioner are appointed by the Governor in Council after consultation with the leaders of every recognized party in their respective houses. (1)

Dr. Bernard Shapiro has been appointed Ethics Commissioner for the House of Commons and the Government, and a Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons (2) has been in force since the first sitting of the 38th Parliament in October 2004. The Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons is not a statute, but can be found as Appendix 1 to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons. The Office of the Ethics Commissioner has also promulgated a revised (2004) version of the Privy Council Office's Conflict of Interest and Post-Employment Code for Public Office Holders. (3)

The Conflict of Interest Code for MPs is a more extensive document than the sections of the Parliament of Canada Act it supersedes. It establishes general principles, spells out in much more detail what conflict of interest means, establishes rules of conduct and procedures for resolving issues, and includes such matters as sponsored travel and prohibitions against gifts and other benefits that were not previously covered by the Act. It also requires members, at the beginning of each new Parliament and annually thereafter, to file with the Ethics Commissioner "a full statement disclosing the Member's private interests and the private interests of the members of the Member's family" (Clause 20(1)). The blank document to be filled out by each member, and for each family member, is 21 pages long. These statements are to be kept confidential by the Ethics Commissioner, but a disclosure summary is to be placed on file in the office of the Ethics Commissioner and made available for public inspection (23(2)). These provisions reduce the private space of members of Parliament and their families. A negative side effect might be that people who treasure their privacy, or, for example, who have reason to fear kidnapping or terrorist attack if even a summary of their assets is disclosed, might be deterred from running for public office. …