It’s disappointing, depressing even, that the anonymous editorial board of Pravda West — excuse me, the Globe & Mail — felt the need to leap to the defence of unethical Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. It’s an extraordinary editorial, even by the generally low standards of Pravda West editorializing. I should think that if a journalists were so morally compromised that he couldn’t muster even a half-hearted attack on a politician found guilty of violating the ethics code, he would at least subside into a sort of embarrassed silence. Not so, apparently. Pravda West will stand by the governing party, come what may!
As you may have heard by now, finance minister Jim Flaherty has been caught lobbying the CRTC on behalf of a radio station in his riding that was applying for a new Toronto-area broadcast license. Although a relatively minor incident in and of itself, this was a direct and flagrant violation both of the Ethics Code and of the Accountable Government code which Stephen Harper himself imposed upon all Cabinet ministers several years ago, which states that ministers may not intervene on behalf of their constituents before quasi-judicial bodies like the CRTC.
At the root of the ethics violation is a discrepancy between what is considered standard practice for backbench MPs (advocating for local interests) and what is a legal obligation for Cabinet ministers (never intervening on behalf of private interests, even ones in your own riding). The Globe & Mail refers to this as a dilemma. I disagree. If you find that the obligations from one of your jobs are incompatible with the requirements of another of your jobs, then at the end of the day, you may have to quit one of those jobs. That’s how real life works for the rest of us. Not, apparently, for Cabinet ministers.
Arguably most insulting part of the Globe’s coverage, though, is this statement:
He stated clearly, “As the MP for Whitby-Oshawa, I support their proposal and application.” The wording was neutral; it did not urge the CRTC to take a particular action.
What utter tripe. Of course it urged a particular action. What’s the point of writing in to express your support for an application, unless it’s to add weight to the application in hopes that it would be approved? Are we really to understand, as the Globe’s editors appear to be saying, that Flaherty intended this letter, and the CRTC understood it, merely as a neutral commentary on the existence of the application?
At best, this is an admission of mind-boggling naivete on the part of the Globe’s editors.
It doesn’t get any better though. The real problem, the Globe assures us, is that Flaherty signed the letter as “Minister of Finance and Minister Responsible for the Greater Toronto Area.” These were the “fatal words,” they claim, although given that they are advocating against any punishment for the wayward minister, it’s not clear how these words or any other ones are in any way “fatal.”
This too is asinine. The Globe would have us believe that the only problem with this letter was that Flaherty explicitly identified himself as a minister. If he hadn’t done so, everything would be okay.
This is true only to an extent. The Ethics Code is written in such a way that there is a loophole open for situations in which ministers don’t refer to themselves as ministers — that is, when they don’t explicitly “use their office” as a way to garner influence. The Accountable Government code removes this loophole. It states directly that ministers may not intervene, period. It adds that ministers may not do indirectly what they are forbidden from doing directly. The language is clear. Flaherty must have read this document. He chose to violate it, plain and simple.
In this case, the Accountable Government code is more sensible than the Ethics Code, although it hardly matters: ministers must follow both of them, which in each case means following the stricter document. The members of the CRTC presumably crack open a paper often enough to know who the finance minister is. It follows that the minister’s influence is being brought to bear whether he suffixes his signature with “Minister of Finance” or “First Lord of Oshawa.”
The same conflict, then, is created for the officials of that organization in either case: what weight should they give a letter from a Cabinet minister? It’s a dilemma, which the ethics code is intended to prevent from occurring in the first place. Rejecting an application which has been lobbied for by a minister is at the very least a challenge to the democratically elected government. Approving that application, however, has the potential to gravely embarrass both the CRTC and the Cabinet if word gets out that they bowed to improper political pressure.
In this case the CRTC chose to reject the application. Ironically, if Flaherty’s violation of the ethics code was an isolated event, he may actually have done more harm than good to the application he was trying to support. Worried about the political implications in the event of a leak, the CRTC might have felt compelled to demonstrate that it did not give any particular weight to his letter of support by rejecting the application.
There is reason to believe, however, that Flaherty’s violation of the ethics code has been accepted by the Prime Minister’s Office because it is actually quite a routine affair in the Harper Cabinet. Just this one application, by this one radio station, also received letters of support from two Parliamentary secretaries. Parliamentary secretaries are covered by the same code as Flaherty himself, so that makes a grand total of three violations on just this one file alone. Under the circumstances I think we must presume that the CRTC’s review files are littered with examples of illegal lobbying from Cabinet ministers. It may even be that some of the Oshawa station’s competitors had letters of support from other Cabinet ministers, so that the CRTC was forced to pick which master’s voice to heed.Tweet