Thursday, April 29, 2010

How much are Canadians spending on novelty cheques?

Yesterday, Mary Dawson, Commissioner for Conflict of Interest and Ethics released her "The Cheques Report" on the use of partisan or personal identifiers on ceremonial cheques or other props for federal funding announcements. Just in case your eyes have glazed over already, this report was written to address the ethics of using, in specific, the Conservative Party logo and Conservative MP signatures on those lovely novelty cheques that are more suitably delivered by a celebrity like Ed McMahon showing up at your front door than a Canadian MP. While this may seem like a very minor issue in the grand scheme of things in Ottawa, it is symptomatic of both the waste and entitlement that our elected officials have developed when it comes to spending OUR money.

The report was made in two parts, the first is under the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons and the second is under the Conflict of Interest Act. In the fall of 2009, the Office of the Ethics Commissioner received numerous complaints about the use of Conservative MP photos, signatures, names and Party logos on the aforementioned ceremonial/novelty cheques. The Opposition was concerned that the use of personal and Party identifiers could be misleading to the public who would associate the expenditure with the Conservative Party and/or the individual MP rather than the government as a whole. This would serve to personally benefit the MP or Minister and the Conservative Party because it could enhance the chances of their re-election. Interestingly enough, complaints about props with partisan identification also came from a great many members of the public at large.

As a reminder, Mary Dawson ruled against a previous complaint that government communication about Canada's Economic Action Plan with the Canadian public had the look and feel of Conservative Party of Canada promotional materials. The inquiry into this request was terminated solely because Ms. Dawson determined that the Conservative Party of Canada was not a "person" as defined under the act. As I said a month ago, a moot point indeed.

In her report, Ms. Dawson notes the following:

"Some Members have used ceremonial cheques or other props to make announcements in their local communities for decades. These were usually plain, bearing only the Canadian flag or coat of arms, and did not display a name or signature. The use of ceremonial cheques has become more widespread over the past 15 years, and more recently there also seems to have been an increasing tendency for elected representatives in various jurisdictions to include personal identifiers on them, in particular names and signatures"..."The Board of Internal Economy, which governs how Members use the allowances and services provided to them by the House of Commons, restricts the use of some of these benefits for partisan political purposes. For example, Members may not use printing services to solicit memberships in, or contributions to, political parties. There are also restrictions on the use of advertising and printing services for election purposes. However, there do not appear to be any rules governing the production and use of ceremonial cheques and, even if there were such rules, they would only apply if funds from a Member’s office budget, allocated by the Board, were used."

She also adds another rather humorous line:

"The question of what constitutes a partisan identifier will always be a matter of some debate."

I'm sure that most Canadians outside of Parliament would willingly help Ms. Dawson determine what is and what is not a partisan identifier should the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commission require assistance. I'd suggest that the use of any Party logo is a clear partisan identifier.

Here is Ms. Dawson's finding regarding the use of novelty cheques by MPs and Ministers et al:

"The use of cheques and other props with partisan or personal identifiers may have helped to raise the profile of the Members, Ministers, Minister of State and Parliamentary Secretaries in question, thereby helping them gain partisan advantage or improve their electoral prospects and those of the Conservative Party of Canada. I conclude, however, as explained in the analysis section of each report, that these activities do not further “private interests” within the meaning of the Code or the Act. I have found that the interest in enhancing political profiles is a partisan political interest and not a private interest, and have found accordingly that none of the individuals named in the requests received by my Office has contravened the Code or the Act."

She continues:

"At the same time, the practice of using partisan or personal identifiers in announcing government initiatives goes too far and has the potential to diminish public confidence in the integrity of elected public officials and the governing institutions they represent. I recognize that Members have political interests and these interests are important to them and their parties. It is to be expected that Members will look for occasions to enhance their images with constituents. However, public spending announcements are government activities, not partisan political activities, and it is not appropriate to brand them with partisan or personal identifiers. One of the purposes of the Code is to maintain and enhance public confidence and trust in the integrity of Members and the House of Commons. It is also one of the rationales underlying the Act in relation to public office holders, including Ministers, Ministers of State and Parliamentary Secretaries."

It saddens me to inform Ms. Dawson that public confidence in the integrity of elected public officials and the governing institutions they represent could hardly be lower.

Basically, Ms. Dawson concludes that the government needs to further strengthen policy that would address the politicization of government communications. She also suggests that the use of all communications materials could be subjected to scrutiny by an independent third party within or outside of government. She acknowledges that there has been an incremental increase in the partisan nature of government communication with the electorate. Think of the "10 percenter" program that has just been discontinued if you want an example of partisan politicking with tax dollars.

She's not kidding about the need for strengthened legislation. It appears to me that the Federal Accountability Act, under which the Office was created, could be termed the "swiss cheese" of legislation; it has so many holes that it is more air than substance. This legislation, brought into existence by the Harper government in 2007, pays no more than surficial lip service to the ethics problems that plague the Hill. We need think no further back than a month ago when there was great debate in the House about the use of $10 million tax dollars to fund "10 percenters".

In conclusion, having just filed my tax return, I'm strongly adverse to the idea that that one cent of the tax money that I send to Ottawa goes to paying for large, comical and nonsensical novelty items that are best suited for television game shows. The fact that they are being used as partisan propaganda by any Party is reprehensible and a breach of public trust. I think most Canadians would agree that we supply the money for these projects through our taxes and that no politician of any stripe should take any credit.

April 30th in history:

1945 - Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun commit suicide in his Furhrerbunker in Berlin.


"The Cheques Report"

1 comment:

  1. I think most Canadians would agree that we supply the money for these projects through our taxes and that no politician of any stripe should take any credit.