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Canadian Politics: Prime Minister Defies Ethics Commissioner

The ongoing saga of The Man Who Crossed The Floor continues to play out in Canadian politics. David Emerson, elected as a Liberal Member of parliament in the election of January 23rd 2006, only took two weeks to decide that he ran for the wrong party, and switched sides so that he could join the winners in the Conservative Party of Canada and become a member of Cabinet.

Well, after a month or so of opposition members of parliament saying something is not quite right, and the people who voted for Mr. Emerson based on the fact that he might actually stand for something, demanding he immediately resign and run as a member of the party he's decided to join, Federal Ethics Commissioner Bernard Shapiro has decided to launch a preliminary inquiry as to whether or not Prime Minister Steven Harper ran afoul of conflict of interest guidelines by proffering the bait of cabinet minister to entice Mr. Emerson to defect.

In the same letter that he sent to three opposition Members of parliament outlining his plans he also indicated that he would be looking into the conduct of Mr. Emerson as well:

"Although the subject of this inquiry is the prime minister, given that the actions of Messrs. Harper and Emerson in this incident were intertwined, questions will no doubt be raised during the course of the preliminary inquiry on the conduct of Mr. Emerson as well." The Globe and Mail Saturday March 4th/06

In the past year, Canada has seen two floor crossings, people switching parties, and one attempted sting to entice an offer of a floor crossing. It is the last incident that opposition Member of Parliament (M.P.) Peter Julian claims set the precedent for this investigation.

A Conservative M.P., Gurmant Grewal, attempted to get a then Liberal cabinet ministers to offer him a position in cabinet if he agreed to switch sides prior to a key vote. He taped the conversation in the hopes of being able to make it look like the Liberals were trying to bribe opposition Members to switch parties.

Mr. Grewal eventually found himself caught in a firestorm, when he released an edited transcript of the tape that made it sound as if he were being lured, but the actual tape recording showed him fishing for the bribe and the Liberal minister not making any promises. At the time, Mr. Shapiro said that if a benefit is offered to entice a M.P. to switch sides, than it is a conflict of interest.

So, lets see now. You go from being an elected Member of the opposition party with no power and the standard Members pay and travel allowance, to being a member of the Cabinet in the government which brings an increase in salary, perks, personal power, and benefits. Does that sound like any benefit was offered to entice Mr. Emerson to switch parties?

In what comes as no big surprise, the Prime Minster's Office has announced it won't co-operate at all with Mr. Shapiro's investigation. You see, Mr. Shapiro was appointed by the Liberals, and Mr. Harper refuses to recognise his actions being anything other than partisan.

According to his office, Mr. Shapiro was found in contempt of Parliament and had his decision-making abilities questioned. Since the vote that passed that resolution occurred during the days of a Liberal minority government, and wasn't considered a vote of confidence, (one that if the government lost they would have to call an election), it was probably a partisan motion to begin with; an attempt by the opposition to discredit the office of the commissioner when they didn't agree with his decisions.

One has to remember that when dealing with politicians it is quite amazing how the truth is shaped. Although what they are saying is technically true, parliament did find Mr. Shapiro in contempt, the circumstances of the vote would cast a light on the veracity of parliament's findings. Just because the people who don't agree with someone's decision question his or her judgement and hold it in contempt, doesn't mean the person was wrong.

So the big question today is, what happens if Mr. Shapiro finds this whole mess was a conflict of interest? Will Harper and his gang try to bluster their way out of it claiming partisan politics and by discrediting the Mr. Shapiro? What if the opposition parties vote to accept his findings if they are against the government?

As far as what the Ethics Commissioner can do, according to Apendix A of the Conflict Of Interest Code For Members Of The House Of Commons section 28 subsection 6 he can:

If the Ethics Commissioner concludes that a Member has not complied with an obligation under this Code, and that none of the circumstances in subsection (5)(Mitigating circumstances) apply, the Ethics Commissioner shall so state in the report and may recommend appropriate sanctions

Now obviously once the sanctions are recommended they will have to be voted on by the House of Commons, so that should be an interesting time. The first week of the Steven Harper's new government devoted to debating the ethical conduct of the new Prime Minister and whether or not he should be sanctioned for his actions.

For a government document the Conflict Of Interest Code makes for some interesting reading actually, and there are a few clauses that I would recommend Mr. Harper and his people read over carefully before they start spouting off too loudly. Section 27 subsection 5) which states…" Members should respect the process established by this Code and permit it to take place without commenting further on the matter" Or subsection 8) of the section which says that all members must co-operate with the Commissioner.

Now Mr. Harper may not like the commissioner personally, and may want to change the act and the way it's applied in the future, but right now, it is the law in Canada and all members of Parliament are subject to this act without exception. Whatever he may think of its current merits or demerits is immaterial to the fact that in commenting on the inquiry and refusing to co-operate with it, he is contravening an Act of Parliament.

Mr. Harper ran in the last election promising a government rid of scandal and corruption, without the taint of questionable ethics hanging over it. Parliament isn't due to open until sometime in April, and Mr. Harper has not only run afoul of the Ethics Commissioner, but he is in breach of the Act that governs the behaviour of Members of Parliament.

You and I are not above the law because we may not agree with it. Just because Mr. Harper is Prime Minister and wants to change the law, does not mean he can ignore it. He has already shown his disdain for the democratic process by actively subverting the votes of all those who wanted a Liberal candidate in Mr. Emerson's riding, now he ignores the laws of our parliament.

It's a good thing he promised to clean up government. I'd hate to see his idea of dirty.

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