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Last week, in Canada's great ethical debate, we learned that the numbers fewer than five include one, two, three and four. Finance Minister Bill Morneau, apparently in a desire to be forthcoming, told the House of Commons that he could say that "two is less than five."

That goofy mumbo-jumbo is a sign of how Justin Trudeau's Liberals have tied themselves up in knots over Mr. Morneau's shares in the company he once ran. Like a bad escape artist, they wriggle around in the straitjacket somehow making it tighter. Again and again, the Liberals keep screwing up on relatively simple matters of ethics and ethics rules.

For months, they failed to see that small fundraisers in which donors paid $1,500 a head and got Mr. Trudeau to show up in their living room didn't live up to their promise to ensure donations didn't buy special access. The PM spent a couple of days defending the hefty relocation expenses of his two closest aides. Then came Mr. Morneau's fiasco, keeping shares he would normally be forced to divest by socking them into a numbered company.

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Each time, the government started by insisting the rules were followed, and ended up with a tacit admission that the rules were not good enough. It's like they don't understand they're the government, and they're responsible both for following the rules and for the rules themselves. Canadians instinctively assume that's so. Somehow the Trudeau PMO doesn't.

That's one reason why these things keep becoming communications quicksand. One of the golden rules of crisis communications is to figure out how it's going to end – what's going to come out, warts and all – and try to get there first. The Liberals pay heavily for getting there last. In Mr. Morneau's case, it probably cost about $5-million: he announced he would donate the profits from the sale of his shares to remove all doubt about whether he might enrich himself. But the story didn't die there.

It didn't help that the Ethics Commissioner, Mary Dawson, managed to mishandle the matter yet again. Asked how many ministers who took advantage of the same loophole as Mr. Morneau, Ms. Dawson bizarrely told The Globe and Mail there were fewer than five. She later explained, in a distressing statement for an ethics commissioner, that she was trying not to be specific. Then Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau got sucked into days of talking about the subset of whole numbers fewer than five. (The answer was two.)

In another vocation, you can rely on just following the rules. Mr. Morneau kept saying he had, but Ms. Dawson had demonstrated the rules were worthless. When she could have recommended otherwise, she allowed Mr. Morneau to keep shares he would have been required to divest because they were held via a private corporation, and did not even require him to divulge that fact. Hiding behind the rules has only hurt the Liberals.

They were embarrassed when it emerged that Mr. Trudeau's two senior aides, Katie Telford and Gerald Butts, claimed more than $200,000 between them in relocation expenses when they moved from Toronto to work in the PMO. Mr. Trudeau insisted they had followed the rules, but it was obvious every new government hire didn't get that sum, and the public wouldn't accept it. The Liberals insisted they were adhering to the law when they held small fundraisers at private homes featuring an appearance by the PM or Mr. Morneau, but they were clearly not living up to their promise to avoid the appearance of giving donors special access. Eventually they had to do better, but not till they dragged themselves through the mud.

None of this, despite what opponents say, shows a new level of venality in government. Even opposition MPs probably don't believe Mr. Morneau is corrupt. Ms. Telford and Mr. Butts probably just threw their moving-expense receipts at officials and didn't second-guess the big refund they received.

But the rules don't reassure the public unless they are strong, clear standards. That's especially true for Mr. Trudeau's Liberals, who promised a new level of ethical standards. They keep getting mired in episodes that suggest they don't have clear standards of ethical accountability – when they're asked about them, they spend days pointing to empty rules and numbers fewer than five.