Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A sweeping and justified ethics complaint

A few points on the ethics complaint filed yesterday on the Harper Government's extensive, government-wide partisan advertising campaign. You can read it below and it's worth a look. The essence of this particular complaint (and there are more in the offing out of the partisan advertising file) is that the Harper Government has operated in a conflicted manner, choosing advertising and communications tools for the Government of Canada that prefer the interests of the Conservative party. It's a bold charge and probably unprecedented for an ethics commissioner to deal with. But that's due to the extraordinary challenge that the Harper Government presents here and for that reason, I hope it is given serious review. While there are technical violations (Treasury Board, Federal Identity rules) and other legal issues to be raised (Elections Canada Act), in many ways, the ethics complaint goes to the heart of the problem. Is the governing party governing in our interest or their own? Here, the charge is clear, it's not our interest they're acting in.

This is a sweeping complaint to the ethics commissioner, citing all manner of taxpayer funded communications tools that have been used in support of the "Harper Government." The partisan websites, the advertising linked to partisan websites, the sloganeering in the television ads, and the very renaming of the government itself in Stephen Harper's own likeness as the "Harper Government" are all set out. The list is long of those whom the complaint is directed against. The Prime Minister, along with a number of his ministers, is named.

Two of the most blatant examples that stood out to me...the links on the site that used to take you to the Prime Minister's personal flickr, Facebook, and other social media sites that indicate a disrespect for the purpose of government communications, here a website. It's not a political playground. The choice to use it in that manner is unethical. Secondly, the material on the deployment of the use of the term the "Harper Government" on the website and throughout Government of Canada announcements. The mixing of the personal moniker with the government's name is subtle yet so offensive. And to get very basic about it, what kind of politician would let their name be used officially in this way? Who on earth thought it would be a good idea to start doing that? It's stunning and unsuitable for democratic forms of government. It's all brought home there.

So, this is also a serious complaint that speaks to some limits in our democracy that shouldn't be breached. The complaint says we're not going to sit by as these Conservatives commandeer government resources for their own political benefit. And it's done in a substantive way. It's good opposition work.

People may dismiss such complaints, as they've been doing with lazy conventional wisdomeering, under the guise that all governments self-promote, that there's nothing new here. Well, it's time to wake up. It's hard for us to be shocked these days, but the scale of this enterprise is new. Reading through and taking it all in, it's hard not to think that there's something quantitatively and qualitatively different here. It just doesn't smell right.

20091027 - Ethics Complaint Document Portfolio Eng