After spending part of the weekend at the Manning Centre conference, I couldn’t be in stronger agreement with Preston Manning if I were a robo-call dialing out his message that some formal sort of ethics training should be mandatory for political actors, activists and anyone who helps their parties or candidates contest elections.
This is certainly not meant to be a damning indictment of the thousands upon thousands of good, honest people who already have a solid moral compass and use it well in their electoral activities. Rather it is more a case of natural evolution (please hold the dinosaur jokes). While you can’t meaningfully legislate ethics – people either will behave ethically or not – it wouldn’t hurt the body politic to catch up with just about every other sphere of society that has some form of ethics education and awareness as a first step to participation in organizations.
I have been to umpteen political conventions for all sorts of parties and I can’t remember any of them having any variety of ethics primer on the agenda. There may have been some, but they certainly didn’t get the attention or attendance of the get-out-the-vote seminars or the communications classes. Part of the reason formal ethics training rarely takes place connects to the nature of political parties themselves. Lots of partisans already figure they have a great sense of right and wrong. Their commitment to picking a side signifies a deep desire to do good for their country via their party. Their party is the moral compass, not just a power delivery vehicle.
Whether you agree or disagree with Andrew Coyne’s critique of the Conservative Party this weekend, it is always important to do as he did: Sit back and reflect on the choices you made to determine where they fit in with your principles; are they justifiable in the journey for the greater good or are you starting to lose your way? While Coyne didn’t speak specifically about ethics, and his analysis was limited to the Tories, he did provide a model of conscience that all political organizations should work to constantly maintain. Getting caught up entirely in outcomes, which for the vast majority of political parties is about winning elections, is normal. But as we have seen in the corporate world, the non-governmental sector and even the sports world, if you solely focus on winning for the sake of winning things slide. People turn a blind eye on occasion when they shouldn’t; reputations come into disrepute ultimately, though not always, meaning achievements get tainted, limited or totally obliterated (right, Nortel shareholders).
If I have to do some ethics training and pass an ethics exam to coach, as I do for rugby in Ontario, I see no reason why we can’t have some sort of similar approach for political activists. Hopefully organizations like the Manning Centre, the Broadbent Institute and other “do tanks,” as Preston likes to call them, will keep pushing this dialogue and being running training modules. We need less sanctimonious lecturing about behavior and more tools to potentially help guide it.