Sunday, October 22, 2006

Ethics, laws and government

In the interests of full disclosure, and this won't be news to my regular readers, I have worked within the political system from time to time. I have worked for and with provincial and federal politicians and prospective politicians.

One set of advice I'm always quick to offer is this:

  1. Never put yourself into a conflict of interest situation;
  2. If you break rule 1 then get out of the situation by eliminating the conflict.
Defense or stonewall on ethical issues always sounds hollow because the defense is almost always a legalistic one. A more fundamental problem is this: it is not enough to be ethically clean, one must also be seen to be ethically clean.

Unfortunately, basic ethical transgressions of government officials in this province are only defined in legal terms. That distorts our expectations.

So when the Commissioner of Member's Interests pronounces that it's perfectly ok for the Premier to appoint the legal representative of his family's oil/gas business interests, Bill Fanning, to a position which advantages those interests, he has provided a legal interpretation of the relevant Acts of the legislature.

That does not mean it's right, correct, proper or ethical; he merely means it's legal. Legal is a long way from appropriate.

You will hear from some a call for a revamped Act to close what is obviously a legal loophole. But the problem with that is that there will always be a way around any rules, regulations or Acts you put in place.

While there are always legal loopholes, there is no such thing as an ethical loophole.

In the end, this is an issue of ethics and a government which chooses to conduct it's behavior along the strict letter of the law is an ethically challenged one.

If you've ever gone sailing or boating, then you know there is a kind of sailor who, upon seeing rocks, will try to sail as close as possible to them just for the thrill. Other, more prudent sailors, will veer far away and not take the chance of running aground.

This government is that sailor who likes to skirt as close to trouble as possible. In fact, there is pride in that kind of behavior and media coverage is sought for it.

I was on the road the last few days and so was only able to review the last few days of the Telegram this morning. I was brought short by a story in Thursday's front page business section. It was a story the like of which I don't ever recall seeing before.

It came from the Aurora and the headline was"Sitting down with seniors: Building Committee introduces potential developer at public consultations".

The story went to describe the public meeting where Terra Nova MHA Paul Oram and his wife Karen Oram were in Labrador City last week to discuss the possibility of opening a seniors'’ complex. The Oram Group, the family company, already owns 2 seniors' homes and wants local support to open a third in the region. (K. Oram center, P. Oram at right)

Not only was a supposedly full-time MHA participating in public meetings to drum up support for a project of his family business, he was comfortable enough to pose for the media. In fact, the media coverage of his activities was a critical part of what he was trying to do.

I know that the quick response for the Oram defenders will be a legalistic one: he is not a member of cabinet and has broken no conflict provisions. And I'm sure that some will say that because he's up front and open about it, then it's ok. I am not saying that he has broken any provisions and he's certainly not trying to hide what he's doing.

And that's the problem.

Does anybody else see a problem with an MHA promoting his family's interests while still taking a public salary. And just to add a complication, it's in an area of business that many see as one where the government should be doing more rather than leaving it to the private sector.

When the cabinet and Premier consults with the caucus on important public issues facing the province (I'm not saying they do but they certainly claim to) such as the provision of senior's homes in the province, what happens then?

No set of laws or codes will ever eradicate ethical transgressions on the part of elected officials. We can only try to elect persons who have that internal compass that tells them what is appropriate and what is not. We can only hope for leadership from the top that guides all members of government to closely examine if their actions are correct or not.

But when the top dogs define what is appropriate purely in terms of what is legal then that is the recipe for future problems. When a government can't tell what is ethically appropriate from what is merely legal, then you have a government that you have to watch twice as hard.

And God knows you never want to let any government out of your sight for long.

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