Friday, January 15, 2010

Substance of ethics complaint on partisan ads remains

You may have noticed this story the other day, the Ethics Commissioner has ruled that an ethics complaint brought in the fall against the government should be discontinued. This was a wide-ranging complaint launched against the government for its partisan advertising onslaught which we witnessed in the fall. The ruling has been described as "fairly ridiculous" by ethics observers. Here's a reminder from September of the actions which spawned this complaint:
Television viewers may have noticed the latest feel-good government ads about stimulus spending, including the Conservative-friendly, anti-election pitch: "We can't stop now," and "We have to stay on track."

All the ads direct viewers to a Tory-blue government website that includes more than 40 different photos of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and refers repeatedly to "the Harper government" – apparently in direct contravention of Treasury Board communications policy.

The TV spots are just the latest $4-million salvo in a $34-million media blitz trumpeting the Conservative's recession-fighting budget.
That questionable "$4 million salvo" financed by we the taxpayers was hauled out in September in support of the government's political positioning. It was estimated at $5.6 million elsewhere. It's not a stretch to believe that this expensive partisan ad onslaught (among others) helped those soaring fall poll numbers for Conservatives.

Unfortunately, the substance of the complaint was not addressed by the Ethics Commissioner. Instead, she discontinued it on a threshold technicality issue. Without getting too much into the weeds of the entire decision, the determinative part found that the Conservative party did not constitute a "person" for the purposes of the provisions under the Conflict of Interest Act that were raised here for the purpose of the complaint. For example:
No public office holder shall use his or her position as a public office holder to seek to influence a decision of another person so as to further the public office holder’s private interests or those of the public officer holder’s relatives or friends or to improperly further another person’s private interests.
Yet it's not difficult to see the conflict that presented itself in this case, how two hats were being worn in respect of all the decisions on partisan advertising. There's the government hat and the Conservative party hat and the two are hard to divorce. Yet the Commissioner let this conflict stand, essentially, on a technicality. The substance of the claim remains unaddressed.

So what do we take away from this development?

The ethics complaint was nevertheless warranted and remains an unresolved sore for the government. The argument remains open that the ad campaign violated the government's own advertising policy. One can also argue that this complaint, among other things, has contributed to the growing narrative of a self-interested government, perhaps being reflected now in Canadians' reaction to the prorogation decision.

The Commissioner's decision highlights a need to tighten up the Conflict of Interest Act and advertising rules. They're no match for this (and perhaps a future) government's calculated ingenuity when it comes to pushing the limits with rules and conventions that are inconvenient to their partisan interests (see prorogation). An independent committee to vet advertising, along the lines of what the McGuinty government did in Ontario following the Harris government's excesses, has been proposed.

And while this decision may be a technical win for the Conservatives, they shouldn't be emboldened by it. The issue of Conservative partisan self-interest is on the table now, big time, after prorogation. If they proceed down this road again, using another onslaught of partisan advertising at a politically sensitive moment, now or in the near future, the narrative will only continue to build.