Recent ethical missteps by government MPs have renewed questions about how to ensure such actions cease, given the examples set at the highest level of leadership and the trend towards declining standards of behaviour. This is not a new phenomenon; in 1998, the Reform Party hired a mariachi band to play in the Senate foyer to highlight the absence of Liberal Sen. Andrew Thompson, who was living in Mexico. Conservative Sen. Mike Duffy wrote off expenses by claiming his home province was P.E.I., though he was acquitted of wrongdoing in 2016 due to hazy ethics rules. This fueled the desire for change in the electorate. In 2012, Bev Oda resigned as MP and minister of international co-operation in the Harper government following public criticism for charging taxpayers $16 for an orange juice at an event abroad.
In recent years, there have been numerous questionable acts by the federal government and MPs. On Feb. 14, Mario Dion, who recently announced his departure from his role as ethics commissioner, found MP Greg Fergus in breach of the Conflict of Interest Act. This followed the finding by Dion last December that the office of International Trade Minister Mary Ng awarded a contract to one of her friends. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also been found to be in violation of the Conflict of Interest Act, when he and his family vacationed on Bells Kay, a private island in the Bahamas owned by the Aga Khan, in 2016. He was also found to be in violation of the act for pressuring then-justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to grant a deferred prosecution agreement to SNC-Lavalin. In 2018, Trudeau was fined $100 for failing to report his acceptance of two pairs of leather-covered sunglasses from P.E.I. Premier Wade MacLauchlan valued at around $700. In 2021, Trudeau was not found to be in violation of ethics rules after WE Charity was hired to oversee the Canada Student Service Grant, though Dion determined that then-finance minister Bill Morneau should have recused himself from cabinet discussions on the matter.
Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, is filing in Federal Court to argue that Trudeau did violate ethics rules regarding WE Charity. He believes the prime minister’s example is a significant barrier to ethical government, and that the maximum $500 fine for ethics violations is “a joke”. Lobbying Commissioner Nancy Bélanger recently proposed reducing the amount of time that lobbyists campaigning or fundraising for a political candidate or party must wait after they end those activities before they can lobby that politician or party or both. This proposal was denounced by Conacher and a coalition of groups he rallied against it. Ian Stedman, assistant professor of Canadian public law and governance at York University, says the proposal and its timing are wrong. An election call could lead to accountability at the ballot box, though Stedman wonders why history has failed so far to repeat itself.
Scott Bennett, associate professor of political science at Carleton University, says the fact that “very little can be done to punish unethical politicians … is a failing of many systems, and it is certainly a failing of our system”. He adds that an important factor overall is the general public’s changing attitudes and social mores. He believes that “what can be done about this? Personally, I am not sure much will change until public expectations and focus change”.