OTTAWA – More and tighter conflict-of-interest rules wouldn’t necessarily ensure more ethical government, says former prime minister and two-time Conservative leader Joe Clark.
On the contrary, Clark told a public inquiry into the Mulroney-Schreiber affair on Monday, there’s a danger that more prohibitions and penalties would just feed public cynicism about politicians and discourage good people from entering public life.
“We are turning government into gotcha,” said Clark.
“We have a series of rules that will catch people. The emphasis is on some kind of punishment – the consequences of straying from rules, rather than the spirit that would lead one to respect the rules.”
The inquiry, headed by Justice Jeffrey Oliphant, has been examining the financial dealings between former Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney and businessman Karlheinz Schreiber, who hired Mulroney to promote the sale of German-designed armoured military vehicles after he left office in 1993.
Mulroney has admitted taking $225,000 in cash from Schreiber but says he broke no laws or ethical guidelines. He says he merely tried to line up support from political leaders in Russia, China and France for a proposed UN purchase of the vehicles for peacekeeping work.
Schreiber says the payments totalled $300,000, not the $225,000 Mulroney later declared for tax purposes. He also maintains the former prime minister was supposed to lobby not foreign leaders but Canadian officials.
The affair has raised questions about whether current ethics rules – especially those governing politicians once they leave office – should be strengthened to head off similar controversies in future.
Lawyers for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government have insisted the present rules, enshrined in the 2006 Federal Accountability Act, are good enough.
But Mary Dawson, the federal ethics commissioner, has argued that amendments are needed to beef up monitoring and enforcement powers.
Clark, who preceded Mulroney as Tory leader and served as a senior minister in his cabinet, steered clear of any comment on the specific facts of the case.
Instead he couched his remarks in general terms, maintaining that an ever more detailed set of regulations is no guarantee of moral rectitude.
Clark suggested, in fact, that even Harper’s accountability legislation – passed in response to the sponsorship scandal that erupted under Jean Chretien’s Liberals – may have gone too far.
The list of restrictions is already enough to give some people second thoughts about embarking on a political career, said Clark. “That is not the kind of attitude that we want.”
He was echoed by Mel Cappe, a former clerk of the Privy Council, who contended that senior public servants are also feeling a chill from the accountability law.
There’s a growing tendency for bureaucrats to play it safe and avoid risk and controversy, said Cappe, now head of the Institute for Research on Public Policy.
“I literally can say that everyone I have spoken to at a senior level has conveyed that to me.”
The assertions didn’t go uncontested by others participants at the round-table discussion held Monday.
Duff Conacher, head of the citizens group Democracy Watch, said the jitters reflect the fact that both politicians and bureaucrats have paid little heed to ethics rules for years.
“Now they’re being enforced and everybody is scared.”
Penny Collenette, who served in the Prime Minister’s Office under Chretien and now teaches at the University of Ottawa, also challenged the notion that nit-picking rules are dissuading people from entering public life.
“There is no end to candidates who want to run for public office,” said Collenette. “We ought to debunk the myth that people are staying away in droves.”
Oliphant has completed his factual inquiry into the Mulroney-Schjreiber dealings and will wrap up a separate round of policy sessions next month. He has until Dec. 31 to deliver a report.