Over the last two years the federal governments sponsorship programme
has been the subject of a study by the Auditor General, the Standing Committee
on Public Accounts and most recently by a Public Inquiry headed by Justice
John Gomery. Central to all these studies have been questions of accountability
and responsibility. This article argues that Canada needs to re-discover
the ethic of responsibility. It also puts forth specific structural reforms
for parliament, the public service, and the executive.
One of the core problems that the 2003 report of the Auditor General, the
hearings of the Public Accounts Committee, and the Gomery Commission of
Inquiry into the sponsorship scandal has revealed is the absence of any
notion of responsibility1
from those in high positions. Testimony has
unveiled that senior public officials ignored several internal complaints
about irregularities in awarding ad contracts. Political staff whose job
it is to advise ministers involved themselves in policy implementation,
the traditional preserve of the public service. The Minister in charge
of Public Works, Alfonso Gagliano, denied liability because he claimed
that he lacked knowledge. The Deputy Minister of Public Works equally
denied liability because he too lacked information. So the question obviously
arises: if the Minister and Deputy Minister were not running the department,
Parliamentary scholar, C.E.S. Franks, put his finger squarely on the problem
in testimony to the Public Accounts Committee in May, 2004: Not one of
the many witnesses who came before the Committee, neither ex-ministers
nor public servants, ever stated: yes, managing this program was my responsibility,
and I am responsible and accountable for whatever went wrong with it.2
The pattern described by Franks to the Public Accounts Committee has generally
been repeated in testimony to the Gomery Commission. One exception is
former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who told the Commission: I regret
any mistakes that might have been made in the course of this program, or
any other government program. As Prime Minister, I take ultimate responsibility
for everything good and everything bad that happened in the government.3
Another is David Dingwall, the former Minister of Public Works, who acknowledged
that he crossed the line in 1995 when he insisted to his Deputy Minister
Ron Quail that Chuck Guité, the epicenter of the crisis, be promoted to
direct communications activities.4 Neither Minister nor their staffs should
interfere in the hiring process of public servants. But from the general
performance of Ottawa decision-makers on recalling their roles in sponsorship,
it is evident that we have a crisis of responsibility in Canada.
Organizations or collectives do not have moral responsibilities, the individuals
within them do. Understanding the primacy of responsibility is the starting
point of accountability. To respond is to answer.5 Therefore, to be responsible
is to be answerable. Government rests on the ethic that people in positions
of power take responsibility for their actions. On responsibility and
accountability we have both a moral and a structural problem. Morally
we have had a retreat from responsibility. Restoring this ethical base
must be the first priority. A starting point will be for parliament to
debate the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities. Structurally,
we have allowed confusion to set in about the separate roles of public
servants, ministers, and their personal political advisors. We need a
clearly understood framework of responsibility and accountability that
is endorsed both by the legislature and the executive. We do not need
to wait for the report of the Gomery Commission to know that we have an
immediate problem that badly needs fixing.
The Morality of Responsibility
Ethics are a system of moral standards or principles that could be accepted
universally, that is, by anyone who did not know his or her personal characteristics
such as social class, race, sex or nationality. According to Hans Küng,
the world renowned moral philosopher, a global ethic is nothing but the
necessary minimum of common values, standards and basic attitudes.6 Among
that necessary minimum is the concept of human obligation or responsibility.
Since the time of the Stoics we have known that as we develop our sense
of responsibility we increase our internal freedom by fortifying our moral
With freedom of choice, including the choice to do right or wrong, a responsible
moral character will ensure that the former will prevail. Therefore each
of us develops moral codes of responsibility as lovers, spouses, parents
or citizens. In Plato's Crito, Socrates says that conscience or the sense
of responsibility is what I seem to hear them saying just as a mystic
seems to hear the strains of music, and the sound of their argument sings
so loudly in my head that I cannot hear the other side.7
Stoics, and the prophets all recognized that with freewill human beings
battle internally and incessantly with the competing forces of light versus
the power of darkness. As Montaigne wrote, so marvelous is the power
of conscience! It makes us betray, accuse, and fight ourselves, and in
the absence of an outside witness, it brings us forward against ourselves.8
So, moral responsibility or conscience is vital to our development as human
beings. We are only free if we are not a slave to evil. But it is equally
central to our notions of political freedom. Freedom and responsibility
are interdependent. Responsibility is a natural voluntary check on freedom.
Just as an individual must have limits if we are to co-exist with our
fellow human beings, so too, political freedom must be exercised within
a framework of mutual obligation. No one has been more eloquent on this
point than Edmund Burke in his 1791 letter to a member of the National
Assembly of France:
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition
to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love
of justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and
sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion
as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good,
in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a
controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less
of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained
in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot
be free. Their passions forge their fetters.9
The philosopher Immanuel Kant paraphrased Matthew 10, Verse 16: Politics
says: Be ye therefore clever as serpent, but morals adds as a limiting
condition: and innocent as doves. Kant believed that like the serpents
and doves of Jesus, politics and ethics could co-exist. But, as Dennis
F. Thompson writes, there is often a tension between them.10 Politics is
the realm of power, governed by utility; ethics is the realm of principle,
ruled by imperatives. What joins the two is the primacy of responsibility
and accountability. The first defence against the corrosive impact of
power is a personal sense of morality among those in position of authority.
If there is no personal ethics, then the state becomes organized kleptocracy,
like Zaire under Mobutu, or anarchy, like Hobbes' war of everyone against
all. If this first defence buckles then we have interlocking structures
and protections, such as parliamentary accountability or the American system
of the separation of powers. As Madison wrote in No. 63 of the Federalist
papers, Responsibility, in order to be reasonable, must be limited to
objects within the power of the responsible party, and in order to be effectual,
must relate to operations of that power.11
In Canada, it is my thesis that we are both deficient in the ethic of personal
moral responsibility and in our structures of accountability.
Morals must be lived, but before that they must be taught. Many institutions
have this responsibility churches, schools, universities, etc. Responsibility
and rights are intertwined but in our age, as opposed to most of world
history, it is rights which receive all the attention, with responsibility
or obligation shuffled off to the corner. The Human Rights Movement, supported
by a plethora of government and non-governmental organizations, has done
a magnificent job in getting people to understand their sights. But if
we have an easily defined human rights community (Amnesty International,
Human Rights Watch, the Canadian Centre for Human Rights and Democracy,
a slew of law school courses, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,
etc.), where is the human responsibility community? Can anyone name even
a single institution that has the propagation of responsibility norms as
its primary mission? Yet, the more freedom we enjoy, the greater the responsibility
we bear, towards others and ourselves. The more power or authority we
possess, the greater, too, our responsibility to use it wisely. Canada
is an innovator in the realm of human rights, but as Gomery shows, we are
a laggard in the domain of human responsibility. It is time to right that
In 1996, while still in possession of all his intellectual and physical
powers, Pierre Trudeau invited me to join him and several former prime
ministers and presidents in a meeting sponsored by the InterAction Council
to consider the interrelationship between rights and responsibilities.
This modern-day father of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms had become
convinced that the world's religions needed to come together to develop
a common ethical base that would serve to prevent Samuel Huntington's Clash
of Civilizations. All this intellectual bridge-building, of course, occurred
before September 11th. It is even more critical today. A group of religious
leaders and philosophers like Hans Küng, worked with the former political
leaders to produce in 1997, A Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities.
It was a creative interplay of truth challenging power.
The hope of Trudeau and the other members of the InterAction Council was
that national legislatures would debate the universal declaration, and
that states would then bring it forward to the United Nations as a companion
declaration to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The draft declaration
outlaws inhumane behaviour, it makes clear that no person, group or organization
stands above good or evil. Everyone endowed with reason and conscience
must accept responsibility. What you don't want to be done to yourself,
don't do to others. Each of us must behave with integrity, honesty and
fairness. There is a responsibility to speak truthfully, to show respect
for all other people. In this regard the Declaration especially mentions
the media. In the context of today's ethical problems in Canada, the greatest
responsibility is placed on those in positions of power and authority.
Article 13 states that such people are not exempt from general ethical
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the United Nations
in 1948, was a landmark in the history of human rights. While not possessing
the force of law itself (international covenants and treaties later gave
effect to the principles of the Declaration), it served as a normative
breakthrough that has been educating the world ever since about the importance
of rights. The world needs Canada needs a similar normative breakthrough
in the realm of responsibility. We should know our duties as spouses,
parents, and citizens as well as we know our rights. Parliament should
debate the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities and apply its
ethical norms to the issues raised by Gomery. If parliament agrees with
the Declaration then the government should be encouraged to introduce the
Declaration to the General Assembly so that the world can finally begin
to focus on our obligations as well as our rights. By restoring responsibility
to its primacy as the arch of our moral code we will be providing an antidote
to the seven social sins as preached by Mahatma Gandhi:
1. Politics without principles
2. Commerce without morality
3. Wealth without work
4. Education without character
5. Science without humanity
6. Pleasure without conscience
7. Worship without sacrifice
The Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities is aimed at the highest
possible level of governance, the United Nations. But most governments,
corporations, professional societies, etc, already have values declarations
or codes of conduct. The late John Tait, for example, a colleague from
the Privy Council in my time as Principal Secretary, and later the Deputy
Minister of Justice, headed a task force on public sector values in the
mid 1990s, which produced an excellent report entitled: A Strong Foundation.
Tait's work led to the 2003 publication of the Values and Ethics Code
for the Public Service, a first-class piece of work. Yet, just about the
time Tait was starting up his task force, so too, was the sponsorship program
launched, and by the time the new values framework was published in 2003,
the near total absence of accountability values evident in the work of
Mr. Guité was becoming widely known. In short, personal morality is essential,
but it is only the first line of defence.
Accountability answers the question who reports to whom for what? It
means politically, that those who have been delegated the power to make
decisions by the electorate, the prime minister, the ministers, the deputy
minister, director-general, etc, must answer for how they have discharged
the duties that they have been delegated. Accountability is about responsibility,
the responsibility to answer for your actions. In our traditional Westminster
system, the electorate confers the formal power to act or be authoritative
to members of parliament from whose ranks the governor general calls on
one of the leaders to be prime minister, who in turn is accountable to
parliament, and the accountability chain continues with ministers and deputy
ministers being accountable to the prime minister, senior officials being
accountable to the minister of the department, director-generals being
accountable to the deputy minister, and so it goes down the line.
When individuals falter, and they always do, you need a structure of checks
and balances to preserve the public interest.
Accountability is, therefore, the requirement to account for the authority
delegated by the legitimate source of authority. Answerability requires
that an account is tendered to those to whom an account is due. There are
three distinct kinds of accountability in our political system and confusion
is common about the distinctions between them. First, there is democratic
accountability and this priority involves the ability of citizens to hold
decision-makers accountable for the power that has been delegated to them.
Second, there is ministerial accountability, the convention which forms
the cornerstone of our parliamentary system. Parliament holds ministers
to account for the policies they promote and for the administrative actions
of their departments. Ministers are responsible for some things and answerable
for all things. Third, managerial accountability is the province of the
senior public service. Officials have the responsibility to ensure that
public resources are being used in accordance with the policy goals of
the government and deployed in the most efficient and effective manner.
Public servants also have the responsibility in carrying out their duties
to ensure that laws, policies and guidelines are respected. Democratic
accountability enhances the legitimacy of the government, ministerial accountability
to parliament polices abuse, corruption and hubris, and managerial accountability
identifies where responsibility lies for success or failure leading to
improved performance and better outcomes.
To be fair, as a result of the sponsorship scandal the government has already
made several structural reforms to improve accountability. The Ethics
Commissioner has been made independent of the Prime Minister and Mr. Shapiro
has brought down a new conflict of interest code for members of parliament.
The Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, or the whistle blowers
act, mandates internal disclosure mechanisms in every department and public
servants can now also appeal to the President of the Public Service Commission.
The recently announced Crown Corporation Review extends the Access to
Information Act to ten formally exempt Crown corporations and the Auditor
General will now be the sole or joint auditor of all Crown corporations.
The Treasury Board also has underway two reviews, which will eventually
be tabled in parliament on financial administration and accountability.
The Gomery Inquiry, while getting to the bottom of individual malfeasance,
will undoubtedly add its voice to that of the Auditor General in recommending
I have two structural suggestions that do not have to wait for Gomery.
It is clear that there is confusion between the forms of accountability
listed above. Ministers define their responsibility for actions very narrowly,
while the opposition calls for resignations at every opportunity. There
is little doubt that ministers have to answer for everything, but are they
responsible for the thousands of decisions made everyday by every department
or agency? Where does the responsibility of the minister end and the responsibility
of the deputy minister begin? And what about the role of exempt staff
or the personal assistants to ministers? The sponsorship scandal shows
that personal assistants had roles that went well beyond their traditional
task of advising ministers. Personnel and implementation decisions were
influenced, if not actually directed, by exempt staff. But if public servants
are guided by the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service, and if
ministers and members of parliament, respond to the Ethics Commissioner
and ultimately the judgment of the voters, what standards are expected
of personal political advisors? The Treasury Board has Guidelines for
Minister's Offices, but the exact role and responsibility of the personal
political office is the black hole of Canadian public administration.
Yet, if the personal political office is essentially unanalyzed as regards
accountability, the same is not true for the public service. The Value
and Ethics Code, for example, lists well the principles of public servants
promoting democratic values such as public servants shall give honest
and impartial advice, or public servants should loyally implement ministerial
decisions, lawfully taken.12
But, David Good in his study of the 2000 debate over the audit of grants
and contributions of Human Resources Development Canada, writes, ironically
the 'Canadian Model' of new public management, operating under the paradigm
of the professional public service has not made accountability and performance
a primary element.13 Donald Savoie, now working on a review of accountability
for the Treasury Board, concurs in Breaking the Bargain:
The broad outline of Canada's accountability regime has remained pretty
well intact over the years. But everything else has changed. Precious
few issues now fit neatly into departmental moulds. As a result, the machinery
of government no longer provides clear space to policy actions and to individual
public servants to assure policy and program responsibilities. And responsibility
is the crux of the problem that needs to be addressed.14
One immediate step would be to adopt the British approach of formally designating
deputy ministers as accountability officers. As described by C.E.S.
Franks, British permanent secretaries have full and personal responsibility
for the transactions in the accounts, including matters of prudence, probity,
legality, and value for money, unless they have been explicitly overruled
in writing by their minister.15 A June, 2004 round table organized by
the Public Policy Forum reported that such an idea received "mixed support"
because the Clerk of the Privy Council in Canada traditionally intervenes
in the case of serious difficulties between minister and deputies.16
believe that making the Deputy Minister legally responsible for accountability
performance would have strengthened the resolve of the Deputy Minister of Public
Works to withstand dubious suggestions.
Therefore, we need an accountability code that commands the support of
parliament, the executive, and the public service. In the cock pit of
parliament it is very difficult to achieve this: a natural impulse of
the opposition is to demand resignation, a natural impulse of a minister
is to off-load. With noted experts like Professor Donald Savoie, I am
sure that the Treasury Board review of accountability will be a quality
piece of work. But in the post-Gomery world it will not be enough to pass
through the portals of government. The opposition has a great deal to
say about accountability and there is much work to do to conciliate the
competing demands and needs of the opposition, the executive and the public
service. The forthcoming Treasury Board report requires a public face.
The government should appoint a three person task force of notable public
figures headed, for example, by a former leader of the opposition like
Preston Manning, aided by an experienced former Minister like Monique Begin
or Jane Stewart, and a retired civil servant whose name is a byword for
integrity like Arthur Kroeger or Gordon Robertson. This task force should
take advantage of all the internal work that has already been accomplished
by the Treasury Board review, but it should then consult widely with outside
experts and every party in parliament. The stature of such a task force
should be great enough to elevate the accountability issue beyond the usual
partisan give and take of parliament. Parliament, the executive, and the
public service all have an equal stake in correctly answering the accountability
dilemma. Each interest must be fully involved in the decision-making.
A non-partisan task force is the best way to achieve this. Our system of
responsible government depends upon it.
If involving parliament in deciding upon an accountability framework makes
sense, so too, should this logic apply to all other policy issues. Granting
supply while keeping governments accountable was the original function
of parliament and it is still the primary function. But to do this parliament
needs sources of expertise and research equal to the executive. The Privy
Council Office and the Department of Finance, for example, with no program
of responsibility have between them 1500-2000 policy experts whose only
job is to advise ministers. The 300 members of parliament have only 80
researchers in the Library of Parliament. Each of the major committees
of parliament should have a research staff that can develop expertise,
percentage, and memory over time. The chairpersons of committees should
be paid the same as ministers so that a person of ambition could see a
parliamentary chairmanship being as prestigious and influential as becoming
a minister. The key to restoring parliament's role in accountability is
to have long serving members with expertise and resources.
If parliament could create independent research entities reporting to the
House rather than the government, parliament could also contribute to reducing
the accountability deficit of citizens. The Congressional Budget Office
in the United States, for example, is a bi-partisan entity whose budget
forecasts and economic analyses are much more reliable than the president's.
Governments are so addicted to spin that many citizens no longer believe
what their political leaders tell them. The Economic Council, the Science
Council, and the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security,
all provided an alternate source of policy expertise and public information
capability before they were cancelled by the Mulroney government. Parliament
should create similar bodies but have them report to and be run by parliament
rather than the executive. On financial accountability, for example, Canadians
have gotten used to governments rarely meeting financial forecasts. It
is now commonplace that governments campaign on rosy budget assumptions,
only to have oppositions discover once they take office, that the deficit
is two or three times larger than anyone assumed. Or, in the opposite case,
surplus projections are understated to later make a government look good.
Such political sanctioned dissembling only increases cynicism and voter
apathy: an independent prestigious economic forecasting body that could
review government budgets and offer impartial views about the assumptions
and figures would both serve to educate the public and act as a deterrent
to the spin masters.
Canada needs to re-discover the ethic of responsibility. Canada also needs
structural reforms in parliament, the public service, and the executive
to make accountability an operating principle, rather than a throwaway
line. As democracy was being invented in the classical age, young Athenians
at the age of 17 took an oath of loyalty to their city which should still
guide us today. For ancient Athens, responsibility or duty was central.
The young Athenians pledged:
We will never bring disgrace on this our city by an act of dishonesty or
cowardice. We will fight for the ideals and sacred things of the city
both alone and with others.
We will revere and obey the city's laws, and will do our best to incite
a like reverence and respect in those above us who are prone to annul them
or set them at naught.
We will strive increasingly to quicken the public's sense of civic duty.
Thus, in all those ways we will transmit this city, not only, not less,
but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.17
The ethic of Athens in the 5th century is desperately needed in the Canada
of the 21st century.
1. My analysis of responsibility and much of the language of the sections
devoted to this topic is drawn from the work of the InterAction Council
on the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities. (www.interactioncouncil.org)
A working group of experts met in Vienna in 1996 to discuss the topic,
greatly stimulated both by a paper submitted by Oscar Arias, the Nobel
Prize winning former President of Costa Rica, and by the active participation
of Hans Küng, a world-renowned expert in ethics. Chaired by Helmut Schmidt,
the former Chancellor of West Germany, the work of the expert group let
to the InterAction Council proposing a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities
on September 1, 1997. My contributions largely consisted of preparing
drafts of the Declaration for the consideration of the Council. Malcolm
Fraser, the former Prime Minister of Australia and current Chairman of
the Council, returned to the subject of the Council's Declaration in an
address to the Symposium on Rights and Human Responsibilities in the Age
of Terrorism at Santa Clara University, California, April 1 and 2, 2005.
2. C.E.S. Franks, "Putting Accountability and Responsibility Back into
the System of Government," Policy Options, October 2004, p 64.
3. The complete text of Mr. Chrétien's February 8, 2005, opening statement
to the Gomery Commission can be found at:
4. See "In Depth: Sponsorship Scandal, Gomery Inquiry 2005: Testimony
so far" at:
5. William J. Bennett, Book of Virtues, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993,
p 185. The chapter on responsibility pp 123-266, has a good collection
of sources on the topic.
6. Hans Küng, Global Ethics and Human Responsibilities, paper submitted
to the High-Level Expert Group Meeting on "Human Rights and Human Responsibilities
in the Age of Terrorism," April 1-2, 2005, Santa Clara University, California,
7. Plato, Crito in the Collected Dialogues, edited by Edith Hamilton and
Huntington Cairns, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963, p
8. Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Works, Everyman's Library, New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2003, p 320.
9. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, London: J.M.
Dent & Sons Ltd, 1971, pp 281-282.
10. Dennis F. Thompson nicely paraphrases Kant and compares politics and
morals in Political Ethics and Public Office, Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1987, pp 1-7.
11. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers,
New American Library: New York, 1960, p 383
12. Canada, Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service, 2003, p 7.
13. David Good, The Politics of Public Management, Toronto: University
of Toronto Press, 2000, p 168.
14. Donald Savoie, Breaking the Bargain, Toronto: University of Toronto
Press, 2003, p 206.
15. C.E.S. Franks, op cit, p 66.
16. Public Policy Forum, Ministerial Accountability: Suggestions for Reform,
June 2004, p 4.
17. Quoted in Bennett, op cit, p 217.