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Preston Manning is president of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.

Some 15 years ago, the corporate world was racked with major corporate and accounting scandals perpetrated by companies like Enron and WorldCom. Investors and the general public had their faith in the ethics of corporations and the business class shaken to the core, and they demanded a response.

In Canada, the Institute of Corporate Directors, established in 1980 to strengthen the knowledge and skills of its members, responded by launching the ICD-Rotman Directors Education Program and offering it at business schools across the country. Ethics became a foundational component of the ICD's extensive course offerings. Those who complete these courses must pass a written examination before receiving an ICD designation, which recognizes their training and signifies a commitment to ongoing learning and ethical conduct. More than 9,000 accredited ICD members, organized into 11 chapters across Canada, have made this commitment.

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But today, with the fraud trial of suspended senator Mike Duffy about to begin and the RCMP still probing his colleague Pamela Wallin, it is the political class that Canadians increasingly see as ethically challenged. For example, a public-opinion survey released last year by the Ted Rogers School of Business at Ryerson University found that 77 per cent of respondents held an unfavourable view of elected officials; 58 per cent saw them as generally unprincipled. The unethical behaviours respondents found most objectionable were using public money to buy votes (mentioned by more than 50 per cent) and breaking election promises (58 per cent). A whopping 90 per cent of respondents saw elected officials as concerned more about money (their own incomes) than about the interests of their constituents.

In August of last year, the Manning Centre conducted a telephone survey of 150 female business executives with the ability, connections and resources to pursue a political career if they so desired. The vast majority expressed a very negative view of politics and politicians, many citing ethical deficiencies as the main reason for their negative opinions. More than 75 per cent said they had no interest in entering such an arena.

In January, the Manning Centre conducted a national public-opinion survey in which respondents were asked to rank the importance they attached to their politicians' knowledge (of issues), skills (such as the ability to communicate and legislate) and character attributes (such as honesty and integrity). Character came out on top, with high importance also attached to "improving the ethical behaviour of our politicians" and "making politicians and public officials more accountable."

All of this raises an urgent question that cuts across party lines: What can be done to strengthen the ethics and character of Canada's political class, particularly of candidates for public office and those who manage and direct constituency organizations, political parties, advocacy groups and campaigns?

How about establishing an Institute of Political Managers and Directors, along the same lines as the Institute of Corporate Directors, with a similar commitment to ethical training and conduct? Such an institute would need to be cross-partisan, not non-partisan, since it would be providing ethical training for participants in the real political world, which is intensely partisan, whether we like it or not.

Its training emphasis should be heavily focused on ethics – promoting truth in communications and knowing where the lines are drawn among truth, spin and lies; advancing guidelines as to what constitutes ethical behaviour in an adversarial system and defining the limits to partisanship; demanding unwavering adherence to the rule of law by those who make laws; and inculcating a trusteeship ethic among those responsible for the handling of public money.

For training resources, the institute could draw in part upon business schools with well-developed courses in ethics, as well as Carleton University's graduate program in political management. Carleton already includes an ethical component in each of its political management courses.

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Lastly, members, like those of the ICD, should be required to pass a rigorous examination at the end of their ethical training and commit to taking periodic refresher courses.

While such an institute would not be a panacea for the ethical shortcomings of our political class, it would at least be a step in the right direction. Over time, the public could well come to believe that any political manager, director or candidate with an institute designation takes ethics seriously and is therefore more deserving of public trust.

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