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Lawrence Martin

How can our lawmakers stand such harsh scrutiny? Add to ...

The Conservatives have learned well. Remember in the old days when they used to holler about the performance of Jean Chrétien’s ethics counsellor, Howard Wilson. Watchdog Wilson, they charged, was a great boon to the Liberals. Present him with allegations of wrongdoing, they said, and inevitably he would find no evidence of wrongdoing.

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But if the Conservatives thought he was a soft touch, they might want to check the record of their own ethics commissioner, watchkitten Mary Dawson. In four years on the job, working with inadequate legislation, her pursuit of malfeasance has been so relentless and unyielding that on only two occasions has she found that a politician violated ethical standards. That’s from a caseload of allegations numbering in the hundreds.Of the two cases her merciless team of investigators moved on, neither reflected poorly on the government. One was against a Liberal MP. Another was a decision last week against former Conservative MP Helena Guergis for using her position to further the business interests of her husband, Rahim Jaffer. The verdict tended to vindicate Prime Minister Stephen Harper for his decision to dump Ms. Guergis from caucus last year.

Some might find it strange that our lawmakers, given all the reports of alleged malfeasance over the past few years, are emerging as guiltless as hummingbirds. Duff Conacher of the group Democracy Watch says one reason is because overseers like Ms. Dawson and Christiane Ouimet, the former integrity commissioner, operate in a tooth-free zone.

Ms. Ouimet’s work was such that even former auditor-general Sheila Fraser, who witnessed a lot over the years, was aghast. More than 200 allegations from whistleblowers came before Ms. Ouimet’s office. Nary a one led to redressal. Ms. Ouimet was pilloried in an A-G’s report and left the government with a $500,000 payout and a gag order not to talk about what she did.

What she did could hardly have displeased the governing party. Of the hundreds of cases handled by her, who knows how many might have constituted breaches of the public trust. Not to be forgotten is the work of another officer of Parliament, Karen Shepherd, the commissioner of lobbying. Her less than avid record of enforcement must bring smiles to many politicos as well.

In defence of their actions or inactions, the watchkittens can point in many cases to lack of jurisdiction. Some of the laws governing their offices have loopholes the size of canyons. Ms. Dawson says, for example, that she can only go after politicians who have controversial dealings with the private sector and that this eliminates many of the complaints brought before her. Democracy Watch’s Conacher disagrees, explaining that nothing in the act governing her office makes this stipulation.

His office has compiled a list of some of the more noteworthy cases which, he says, have not been adequately pursued. Many involve cabinet ministers. Mr. Conacher finds it passing strange that Ms. Dawson didn’t rule against cabinet minister Tony Clement for partaking in a promotional video endorsing a business operation of one of his constituents. But Mr. Clement isn’t in the clear yet. The RCMP is currently looking into allegations the government misappropriated funds in connection with last year’s G8 summit. The G8 spending operation was slammed in a recent Auditor-General’s report.

Mr. Conacher has a particular interest in the work of Ms. Dawson’s office and the other oversight bodies. He played a prominent role in the drawing up of accountability legislation that the Harper government enacted in 2006. He was impressed by the reform package, but has since seen much of it dismantled or ignored.

Having chronicled so much ethical abuse, Mr. Conacher would like a more hands-on role in eradicating it. He has applied for the position of Integrity Commissioner. At last look odds-makers were putting his chances of getting it at about one in a thousand.

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