Mary Dawson: How can we govern Canada ethically?
It can’t be easy, being The House of Commons’ moral compass. Since 2007, Mary Dawson has been Canada’s Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, presiding over approximately 308 Members of Parliament (MPs) and 2,500 public office holders.
Dawson's May 4 workshop will present her perspectives on the public’s trust in elected officials and government institutions, and how we can ensure high standards of ethical governance.
“People want to follow the rules, on the whole,” says Dawson, who also spoke at last year’s WSSR. “We’re as ethical as we ever were and we’re probably more conscious of it, so we’re a little more ethical.”
Nonetheless, infractions happen and Dawson’s office is kept busy answering inquiries from MPs, monitoring their reporting activities, running investigations and writing reports.
The Conflict of Interest Act governs the public office holders, while a Code of Ethics is applied to MPs.
“The major strength of this system is that the act and the code exist at all,” says Dawson, who had a long career in the Department of Justice before she retired as the Associate Deputy Minister in 2005.
“The main focus of both the Act and the Code is on conflict of interest, and my office tries to make those rules as clear as possible, with guidelines on the website. I see my job as largely educational and explanatory, giving advice.”
Some see her as an effective enforcer of the rules about accepting gifts, lobbying, using insider information, giving or receiving preferential treatment or using political influence — and other infractions.
“We aim to prevent, not to punish,” says Dawson. “But I can do an investigation, issue a report and shame you into the ground.”
One rule that her office struggles to explain and enforce is the gifting rule.
“There are reporting requirements that go along with gifts,” says Dawson. “Many people confuse the reporting requirement limit — which is $200 under the Act — with the rule itself. These are two different issues. If you get a gift of $150, you don’t have to report it, but it doesn’t mean you can accept it.”
Dawson’s office can investigate if somebody contravenes, and there are penalties for failure to report in a set period of time. Her workshop will examine a few recent cases in the public domain, to illustrate what could work better in the Act and Code.
“There’s currently no post-employment reporting requirement: once somebody’s left office, when they are not allowed to take jobs with companies they dealt with in office,” says Dawson. “Also, timelines for reporting and annual reviews exist in the Act, but not the Code. I’d like to add more timelines within the code, which could allow me to apply a penalty.”
But Dawson’s biggest piece of advice to her MPs and public office holders is simple: “Be better — then the public will respect you more.”