Trial legacy may be enduring ethical lesson
By Louisa Taylor, The Ottawa Citizen - August 7, 2009
OTTAWA-If any good can come out of the trial of Mayor Larry O’Brien, it might be that politicians will think twice before wading into discussions that could be seen as trading government jobs for favours, a former Liberal director of political appointments says.
“This case raised a red flag to politicians everywhere,” says Penny Collenette, who served as director of appointments in the Prime Minister’s Office from 1993 to 1997 and later ran for office in Ottawa Centre. “I don’t know how many were even aware that under the Criminal Code an offer (of a job) could be construed as criminal behaviour.
“For Mayor O’Brien personally, this has been a very rough experience, but, if we can learn some lessons from it, that’s an improvement.”
Patronage has already changed from the back-room deal-making of the past, Collenette says. When she was director of appointments under former prime minister Jean Chrétien, her office began advertising positions in the Canada Gazette, consulting public servants on the hiring process and interviewing candidates, moves that marked a clear departure from previous practice. It also published a book of all the public appointments available, “a big, thick, white book,” says Collenette, who is pleased that such information is now available on a government website.
“I think every government — be it federal, provincial or municipal — learns along the way how to do a better job at this,” says Collenette, now an adjunct professor in the faculty of law at the University of Ottawa and executive-in-residence at the Telfer School of Management. Her academic focus is corporate governance and ethics, corporate responsibility and whistleblowing.
While the O’Brien trial has stirred up public discussion about ethics, which Collenette says is a good thing, she also sees some potential damage from the trial.
“Unfortunately, in this situation, it’s a double-edged sword because the trial has fed into public cynicism,” Collenette says. “People sigh and say ‘What’s the point?’ but it’s important that we are discussing it and people understand government has moved forward.”
She also warns against seeing what O’Brien has been through as a cautionary tale.
“People might go back to that question, ‘Why would any of us ever run for public office?’ But we need people to come forward, responsible citizens willing to say they’ll put their name into the public arena, and, in return, as a society we have to say we’ll treat them fairly.”
While many political candidates have a sophisticated understanding of what they can and cannot do under the law, others are operating in the dark, Collenette says.
“The parties do a great job at training for candidate-organizing and polling and so on, but the ethics part and the conflict-of-interest part is probably still missing from most of our training,” she says.
“It’s not just the candidates who need it, it’s their staff. There’s a loyal person who has worked hard for you on the campaign trail, and, when you take office, you pluck them out of the riding, bring them to Ottawa and say, ‘There you go.’
“Every time (ethics training) has been raised over the years, the answer is always that we don’t have enough money, but I really believe it would provide a forum for questions and would probably prevent trouble.”
To further develop transparency in the appointments process, Collenette advocates creating a Crown agency that combs the country to compile a database of people qualified to fill public appointments, regardless of party affiliation.
“It could be called Canada Talent or Canada Recruits, and it would be an agency dedicated to finding the talent that’s everywhere in this country because that’s who we want serving our country.”
While that idea may be a long way from fruition, Collenette believes that the public is ahead of politicians when it comes to tolerating ethical lapses.
“The public doesn’t have any patience for that sort of thing. Any politician who doesn’t hear those signals is not going to be successful.”
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen
Penny is a frequent public policy commentator on national television. During the 2011 federal election, Penny was a commentator for Global TV. Penny tweets @penottawa.
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