Did our ethics rules make decision-making poorer?

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The finding of the Ethics Commissioner that prime minister Justin Trudeau broke the Conflict of Interest Act when it comes to the Double-Hyphen Affair should cause us all to take stock of how decisions are being made in government – and not just the current one, but the previous one as well.  Much of the report detailed painstakingly how different departments didn’t communicate with one another, and a host of people who didn’t want to take no for an answer, almost certainly as a way of trying to ingratiate themselves, while SNC-Lavalin was working with officials in the finance minister’s office a little too closely, trying to stage-manage events so much so that they were the ones who suggested that the Deferred Prosecution Agreement legislation be part of the federal budget as a means of expediting the process – and those officials complied.  In reading this, and marvelling at the complete crisis of competence in government that it demonstrated, I am forced to wonder if there isn’t a more systemic problem at play that was, ironically, brought about by those very ethics rules that Trudeau was found to have violated.

In the post-Sponsorship Scandal years, there was much rending of garments and wailing about how there were too many close links between government and lobbyists, and that it was a “revolving door” between the two.  The Conservatives rode into Parliament after the 2006 election on the white horse of accountability, promising that their first piece of legislation would be the Federal Accountability Act, and they were planning on cleaning up Ottawa – years before “drain the swamp” became a catch phrase.  And so, with the help of NDP MP Pat Martin, someone who was as determined as the Conservatives were to make the Liberals pay for all of their years in office, they rammed the Act through a hung parliament.  The Liberals, for their part, knew of all manner of problems with the bill but knew that public opinion was against them, so they left it for their Senate colleagues to try and do the heavy-lifting with fixes, and only a few managed to survive that process.

Among the changes that created the ethics regime that we have today were the attempts to close that “revolving door,” by bringing in fairly draconian cooling-off periods for when people who worked in ministers’ offices could work in certain jobs – particularly lobbying.  What it effectively became was a disincentive for people in the private sector to take jobs with ministers’ offices because those cooling-off periods could derail their careers for years, and many felt it was simply not worth it.

Part of the calculation on the part of the Conservatives was that they didn’t really care for their own short-term prospects – the old Progressive Conservatives had been out of power so long that there were few experienced people who wanted to come back to Ottawa to help them out, assuming that they felt that it was the same party that they used to belong to (and many didn’t).  And as with so many things, it was more important to punish the Liberals than see the long-term damage of some of their decisions (such as changing the rules around fundraising for leadership contests, in the middle of the Liberals’ own contest so that it would deliberately hobble them).

Instead of experienced voices who would help staff ministers’ offices, we instead saw the rise of twenty-something new graduates filling the ranks of ministers’ offices, chosen less for any general ability than they were for their loyalty to the party brand and the leader.  Anyone who demonstrated any modicum of talent was immediately swept up by PMO, leaving the lesser bodies still in ministers’ offices, and many times, it showed.  And while there are ways to get around the cooling-off periods, we saw a huge rise in staffers moving from federal to provincial government and back again.

Which brings us to the current government’s predicament.  So many ministers’ offices are being run by those new graduates in fairly senior roles, and I’m not sure that the quality of advice is really there.  This was compounded by the fact that Trudeau had effectively shunned many old party staffers.  So many MPs were new, the vast majority of ministers didn’t have previous ministerial experience, and with these young staffers whose chief asset was their loyalty, we got this situation of the blind leading the blind up a steep learning curve (a situation this government also decided was so great that they recreated it with the new “Independent” Senate).

When your government looks like this, it’s hard not to see why the timeline of the Ethics Commissioner’s report read a little bit like a five-alarm clown show, and why people were making decisions out of their loyalty to the leader, trying to please him in getting the outcome that he expressed a desire to see, rather than trying to give some advice that hey, maybe we shouldn’t try to interfere with prosecutorial independence, and maybe SNC-Lavalin doesn’t have our best interests at heart and we should stop letting them tell us what to do.

I have no doubt that there are many talented, competent people in the private sector who would have a great deal to contribute to ministers’ offices, and who would have much better advice than simply trying to please the leader, but there are so many downsides to even thinking about it that they simply stay away.  That can’t be good for the country, because we are instead left with a rather incestuous pool that is far more blinkered as to what is and is not appropriate, because they feel that they’re on the side of the angels.  Ministers – and most especially the prime ministers – aren’t getting good advice, and we are left with this complete crisis of competence – and this goes for all parties.  Making our ethics rules so restrictive out of a hysterical overreaction to Sponsorship has hobbled this and all future governments, and as this episode has demonstrated, made them more susceptible to the kind of violations they were trying to avoid.  Slow clap, everyone.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from Dale Smith.     @journo_dale

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