At the time this article was
written Susan A. Murray was President of S.A. Murray Consulting Inc. in Ottawa.
During its hearings, the Special
Joint Committee on the Code of Conduct heard suggestions for a written code of
ethics for parliamentarians from academics, ethics commissioners and other
witnesses. In November 1995, the Committee heard from a lobbyist who explained
her company’s experience with a code of conduct and suggested parliamentarians
could also benefit from a written code.
A code of conduct is just a piece
of paper. It is how you live with it in a fluid way and as issues arise that
make it real. Certainly, we are in a period in which all public institutions
are undergoing a process of renovation and reinvention. Parliamentarians face
major challenges and have significant opportunities to be leaders in this
process; however, I do not think we can reinvent our institutions without first
admitting their imperfections and failings.
I also feel that we should
acknowledge at the outset the limits of what we are attempting. Anyone
searching for a perfect standard or set of rules will be disappointed. I was
struck by a comment the Hon. Mitchell Sharp last year: "You can’t regulate
honesty". Whatever you decide to include in a code of conduct, if you
create one, I think the results ultimately will depend on the determination of
parliamentarians to act honourably and to fundamentally understand right from
Does that mean this is unimportant
or just rhetoric? I do not believe so. The public has a fundamental right to
feel that those it elects carry out their responsibilities honestly and
impartially. A code of conduct can assist both members of the public and parliamentarians
to understand and deal with all the complexities of public life and
significantly get on with the job. If I can use the word "neutrally"
in this political setting, it helps strike a common-sense balance between the
free flow of information and the public’s right to accountability. That is
positive, and that’s an important accomplishment.
Integrity and impartiality are the
foundation of public sector ethics. People expect that the treatment they
receive from public agencies will be without regard for any individual or
personal characteristics and that they will be treated like everyone else. They
also expect that those who hold public office, whether private members of
Parliament, senators, public servants, or judges, will be honest at all times
and not derive improper personal benefit from their position.
Since 1983, before the issue became
fashionable, before there was legislation affecting our industry, and before
there was an industry association, our company adopted a code of conduct and
ethics and we are as committed to its principles and spirit now as we were when
it was created.
Extreme case are straightforward.
Bribery is a serious criminal offence. But what about less straightforward
cases? A code of conduct for parliamentarians will help to guide behaviour both
to avoid circumstances that may threaten one’s integrity and to deal with
harmless events and circumstances that might be interpreted as threats or
violations to the integrity of MPs and senators.
I want to illustrate with a couple
of examples. Say a newly elected MP has a pharmaceutical company head in her
riding. She gets a luncheon invitation from the vice-president of corporate
affairs who says she wants to introduce the company and offer any assistance
the MP may need in dealing with related health care issues. They have a
pleasant lunch, and agree to split the bill.
A couple of months later, the
vice-president offers the MP two tickets to a Stanley Cup play-off game,
remarking that the company has a box at its arena and makes tickets available
to MPs, as well as to customers and other guests. Is there a problem here?
Example two. A government
industrial assistance program is up for renewal. The industry association hires
a lobby firm and several industry representatives, and a senior government
relations consultant arranges meetings with senior public servants and
ministerial staff. They also meet with MPs whose ridings include the companies
In each meeting, they present an
analysis that shows government support levers so much additional private
funding that the government gets back more in taxes than it pays out under the
program, and they ask for favourable consideration when program renewal is
considered. Is this activity proper?
In my view, both situations are
proper if certain precautions are taken. I start from the position that it is
part of an MP’s job to represent all of his or her constituents and that
getting to know them and their concerns is basic to doing the job. That does
not mean there is never going to be an issue. Lunch with a representative of a
business or an interest group in any MP’s riding is no problem, especially
since the MP and the company official, in my example, split the bill. Stanley
Cup tickets could be seen as different. First of all, they’re much more
valuable – or they used to be.
Secondly, the obvious question ,
what’s in it for the company handing them out? The easiest way, of course, to
avoid a problem is to say no and suggest there must be many other people with
whom the official would rather spend an evening. Another option would be to
accept the tickets but only on the condition that the MP will pay for them.
You may also want to consider rules
such as those that exist in Ontario, whereby a member of the Legislative Assembly
can accept a gift or personal benefit ‘’as an incident of the protocol customs
or social obligations that normally accompany the responsibilities of office’’,
but if the gift is worth more than $200 or if the total value of gifts from one
source exceeds $200 in one year, the member must file a disclosure statement
with the provincial integrity commissioner. The logic of the Ontario
Members’ Integrity Act is that disclosure of a benefit makes it difficult
for there to be any untoward effect on legislators’ behaviour.
The second case is probably the
most common. Here an organization meets with officials and parliamentarians to
advocate funding under an established program. Unlike the first example, a paid
lobbyist is in the picture, but that person’s role is to advise and facilitate.
The discussion is conducted by the association representatives.
Aside from having paid assistants,
this is a straightforward case of constituents communicating with their elected
representatives. As long as all other groups have equal access to the
representatives, the lobbyist should be no more than a convenience performing
tasks the association could have done itself. I hope these examples highlight
several things about conflict of interest that you will want to reflect on.
First, many situations are less
than textbook clear. Accepting a couple of hockey tickets may be fine, even if
it results in envy from friends, relatives and colleagues, but what if you are
offered a pair of play-off tickets to an out-of-town game, and that offer
includes a weekend at a hotel, and airfare? That benefit is pretty hard to fit
into the category of protocol, customs or social obligation.
Second, different situations
suggest different responses. Sometimes the most sensible thing is avoidance –
just say "No thanks" – while other circumstances may best be dealt
with through disclosure. There are circumstances where a parliamentarian’s
personal financial interests may be affected by a matter before them. In these
cases, the MP or senator would be expected not to participate in the debate or
the decision. There will always be people who are suspicious or adept at
finding fault. The test of a code of conduct is not whether its existence
silences those who grumble about politicians. The fundamental issue at all
times is the public’s right to impartial treatment and personal integrity in
its elected representatives.
Third, regulating the conduct of
parliamentarians will always be an ongoing process of attempting to balance the
free flow of information with the integrity of elected representatives. No rule
book can ever settle all the possible cases in advance. I do think we are at a
crossroads in Canada’s public life, and I’m not referring to anything in the
Constitution. Government and politics in our country no longer connect with
many people’s priorities or even expectations. Things are out of sync and
people are increasingly disenchanted and alienated by the distance between what
they want - or think they want – and what they think they’re getting. This gap
between government agendas and the expectations of citizens is not healthy, and
results in wasteful and inefficient government.
Canadian citizens are years ahead
of their politicians. They want less from government, but they still believe in
government and that it can do good. They want services from government, but are
prepared to accept far fewer than politicians believe. Their willingness to
accept less is not because they think government-provided services are bad,
that public servants are unproductive drones, or that poor and vulnerable
people are undeserving. They are tired of paying for the notion of government
as all-providing, as a one-stop shop for everything every Canadian needs in
order to be protected, sheltered, educated, nurtured, guided, socialized,
tutored and so on.
They want government to be more
responsive, and for customer service to be job one. I think they see
government’s role as creating the appropriate conditions for individuals,
businesses and associations of all kinds to flourish and grow. To a much
greater extent government would be a standard setter, context definer and an
enabler, but less and less a direct provider.
It is time to pull government into
the future. Government in Canada is reinventing itself; it has to. We have
outgrown the organization, assumptions and business practices of our
governments. The old paradigms are obsolete and we have to begin to reinvent
I think the opportunity facing you
as parliamentarians parallels the situation I experienced when I began my
business as a government relations consultant in the early 1980s. I started
with the insight that the public and private sectors often existed as two
solitudes in conflict because of mistrust and misinformation about each other.
I saw that both could benefit from a service that attempted to bring those two
solitudes together; in other words, a business whose business would be helping
business and other organizations take a leadership role in creating solutions
for their own issues with their government.
Lobbyists need to reject cronyism,
back-door influence and the exchange of political favours. I think a parallel
opportunity exists for parliamentarians today.
At one time the practice of government
relations was very different. It once was sufficient to rely on political
contacts - on who you knew, not what you knew – and cronies to get results, and
the business of lobbying government involved trading political favours for
electoral fund-raising or other monetary benefits.
Those days are gone. There is no
room within government decision-making today for responses and solutions that
are not justifiable in terms of good public policy. Voters have clearly
indicated that they will punish bad decisions.
Today, any lobbying firm that
relied solely on political connections would not last long. A few words in the
ear of a friendly politician over a dinner or golf simply will not solve the
complex issues. Lobbyists need more than a fat rolodex and a silver tongue.
Partisanship matters less to
Canadian citizens than integrity, good faith and the political will to do what
is right, even if it is occasionally unpopular. I am not saying that
partisanship is a bad thing or that party discipline and party loyalty are
obsolete, only that they can no longer provide the only baseline for the
politics of the 1990s and the next millennium.
A fundamental aspect of the
reinvention of government is the centrality of ethical principles. That is what
drives the public’s demand for ever greater accountability. It is not that most
people think their representatives and officials are dishonest. Rather, they
want to see an explicit commitment of public office-holders to standards of
honesty, responsibility and integrity. I think this presents clear opportunity
for parliamentary leadership.
We were the first government
relations firm in Canada to adopt a written code of conduct. I believe we have
established a standard for the practice of ethical government relations. For
many years it was not easy. There were years where we probably paid a price,
but ultimately it does make good sense. My experience is that making ethical
standards central to the conduct of one’s business ultimately has enormous
It clarifies expectations on both
sides of the relationship and eliminates a lot of possible misinterpretation
and misunderstanding. Our clients know we are not peddling political or
bureaucratic influence. They know before they ever engage us that we will not
knowingly provide misleading or inaccurate information to officials, and that
we will not play both sides of the street. Each client contract we sign states
our commitment to not accept work that would involve direct conflicts of
interests with existing client commitments.
Our commitment to transparent
advocacy means our dealings with officials and politicians are fair, reasonable
and open. This is something that has earned us respect from civil servants and
MPs across Canada, and it has served us well professionally.
It sensitizes us to issues that may
arise where there are no established rules. For example, in the early 1990s I
hired two senior consultants with connections to the NDP government in Ontario.
One had been a political advisor and at the time was a civil servant, but her
spouse continued to be a minister’s chief of staff. The other was a senior
advisor in the premier’s office.
As you may know, there are no
post-employment rules for the Ontario government’s political staff. In each
case we sought the advice of the conflict of interest commissioner, and we
agreed on a detailed set of constraints on the work these people would do. And
that was in a context where former deputy ministers were going out and selling
their services in the field they had been in the day before.
Again, there were no rules but we
felt we should show some leadership. This not only underscored our commitment
to ethical government relations, but it also permitted these individuals and
those they dealt with subsequently in the Ontario government to do business
without any apprehension, impropriety or conflict.
Finally, our code lets us focus on
what we do best, to try to provide our clients with professional advice about
their issues. Again, I think this is a particularly salient point for
parliamentarians. The demands on government are so many and varied that
anything that simplifies your job of representing the interests of Canadians
while increasing public confidence in your commitment to the highest standards
of integrity is worth embracing.
Across North America fiscal and
other pressures have given rise to a host of efforts to reinvent government, to
make it smarter and able to do more with less. The work you are doing to
develop a code of conduct for parliamentarians is an important opportunity for
our parliamentary democracy to embrace ethical principles in day-to-day