In the case of ethics violations, the fish rots from the head down

Justin Trudeau’s flagrant disregard for ethics set the tone early on and has allowed his caucus to flaunt the rules time and again. Pictured is Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister Greg Fergus, just the latest in a long line of Liberal MPs caught in contravention of ethics laws under Trudeau. Photo credit: The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick


In a not so shocking turn of events, a Liberal MP made headlines this week when he was found guilty of violating Canada’s Conflict of Interest Act. While the story itself isn’t very salacious, Greg Fergus, who is the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, was found to be in clear contravention of the laws that are meant to “minimize the possibility of conflicts arising between the private interests and public duties of public office holders.”

This is becoming a routine matter for a Liberal government that seemingly doesn’t care about the perception of undue influence, nor the rules that are supposed to govern ethics in this country. So, what gives, and what can be done about it?

The dos and don’ts of ethics violations are not some foreign language tucked away on some dusty bookshelf, and for the most part the laws are pretty basic concepts to understand. In response to the latest Liberal violation, Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion said, “offers to provide training and educational sessions on a variety of topics have been offered to all federal parties and to regulatees, yet we continue to see a succession of mistakes that are largely attributable to the inability to recognize the need to seek consultation.”

It’s clear that Liberal MPs are not interested in taking the Commissioner up on this offer. Fergus’ ethics violation follows in the wake of International Minister of Trade Mary Ng being found guilty of giving a contract worth nearly $20,000 to a friend. Then there were the violations by the former Finance Minister during the WE charity scandal, and by the Prime Minister himself when he was vacationing on the Agha Khan’s island. A host of other Liberal MPs have also been slapped on the wrist for their conduct. 

If naming and shaming worked, we would have seen a change in behaviour from the Liberal caucus years ago. Instead, Justin Trudeau’s flagrant disregard for ethics set the tone early on and has allowed his caucus to flaunt the rules time and again. When it comes to their moral compass, Liberal MPs abide by the old rule that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission.

The penalty for a federal ethics violation is “up to $500”. An immediate step that can and should be taken by the Trudeau government is to make the cost of non-compliance an actual deterrent to the crime. Increasing the penalty would hopefully make MPs think twice about breaking the rules.

As an alternative to doing the actual work of rewriting the legislation to include stricter monetary penalties, the Prime Minister could let his caucus know that ethics violations will no longer be tolerated and that any member found guilty would be removed. The reality, however, is that this is unlikely to happen. 

In the case of ethics violations, it is true that the fish rots from the head down. The Prime Minister won’t take action to curb the systemic rot in his caucus because he too has been found guilty of the same behaviour. But enough is enough. Canadians deserve better than a government that refuses to take accountability and is more interested in serving their private interests than the interests of their constituents. 

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