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Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson waits to testify before a Commons committee on October 26, 2010.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

MPs and cabinet ministers behaving badly? The Commons ethics watchdog says she can't do much about it unless it involves shenanigans with private interests.

But in her annual report on Thursday, Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson suggested the House of Commons could consider a code of conduct for its members.

Ms. Dawson said she regularly gets complaints from people who think that politicians are abusing their positions or behaving inappropriately.

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"Misleading statements, personal attacks and the like that come with the partisan nature of political life are often distasteful to many Canadians," Ms. Dawson wrote in her reports on both the Conflict of Interest Code for MPs and the Conflict of Interest Code Act.

"Some assume that this sort of behaviour must be covered by one or another of the various accountability regimes in force. In fact, there is no comprehensive regime that governs political conduct in general."

Ms. Dawson said some of the cases she's been asked to look into, but couldn't, included the use of MP mailings or communications in an overly partisan manner, using partisan labels when announcing government initiatives, or breaking the confidentiality of the budget process.

Her office examines cases involving MPs and public office-holders and their dealings with individuals and businesses outside of government … everything from accepting gifts to where they work after leaving politics.

She noted that she sometimes refers issues to other bodies, include the Speaker of the House of Commons, the lobbying commissioner, and the chief electoral officer.

"However, none of these authorities appears to have within its mandate the responsibility for regulating the ethical aspects of partisan political conduct," she said.

She said that simply throwing up one's hands on political conduct does "a great disservice to our democratic institutions and to Parliament itself, and can only erode the confidence of Canadians in our systems of government."

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She suggested that the Commons could come up with a conduct of conduct, relying on either voluntary compliance or perhaps overseen by a ex-parliamentarians from the various parties.

As for Ms. Dawson's own area of responsibility, she also sees room for improvement.

She noted that despite previous recommendations, there is still no way to track what happens to public officer holders such as ministers and parliamentary secretaries once they leave government.

There is a cooling-off period that prevents them from directly dealing with or working for entities with which they had contact in government. But there is no requirement for them to report on where they go and no sanctions if they break the rules.

Ms. Dawson also described some of the difficulties she encountered in trying to get documents for her investigations.

She said although she is subject to strict confidentiality rules, she still experienced delays in getting some cabinet records.

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And she said the Commons would not give her emails from a particular MP's office directly. The MP was able to get the emails first and decide which ones to give Ms. Dawson afterward.

"This situation raises serious concerns about the integrity of the inquiry process," Ms. Dawson wrote.

"I hope to have an opportunity to work with the House of Commons to establish a process that will allow me to obtain direct and full disclosure of documentary evidence."

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