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The impact and role of officers of Parliament: Canada's conflict of interest and ethics commissioner

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Officers of Parliament play a vital role in providing parliamentarians with access to critical information and resources that allow them to hold the government of the day to account. Critics have argued officers have exceeded their mandates and even threaten to supplant the opposition. Canada's Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner (CIEC) holds a unique mandate, given that her primary focus concerns the behaviour of public office holders. This article draws on a comprehensive examination of the commissioner's reports and recommendations, and a content analysis of committee appearances to analyze and understand the impact and role of the CIEC. In contrast to the portrayal of other officers in the extant literature, we find that the office of the CIEC is constrained in its mandate and its impact limited by the nature and extent of its relationship with Parliament.
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Gwyneth Bergman
Emmett Macfarlane The impact and role of officers of
Parliament: Canada’s conflict of
interest and ethics commissioner
Abstract: Officers of Parliament play a vital role in providing parliamentarians with
access to critical information and resources that allow them to hold the government
of the day to account. Critics have argued officers have exceeded their mandates
and even threaten to supplant the opposition. Canada’s Conflict of Interest and
Ethics Commissioner (CIEC) holds a unique mandate, given that her primary focus
concerns the behaviour of public office holders. This article draws on a
comprehensive examination of the commissioner’s reports and recommendations,
and a content analysis of committee appearances to analyze and understand the
impact and role of the CIEC. In contrast to the portrayal of other officers in the
extant literature, we find that the office of the CIEC is constrained in its mandate
and its impact limited by the nature and extent of its relationship with Parliament.
Sommaire : Les agents du Parlement jouent un r^
ole crucial pour fournir aux
parlementaires l’acce
`s
a des renseignements et
a des ressources essentiels qui leur
permettent de rendre imputable le gouvernement en place. Certains critiques ont
soutenu que les agents ont outrepass
e leur mandat jusqu’au point de menacer et de
supplanter l’opposition. La commissaire aux conflits d’int
er^
ets et
al
ethique (CCIE)
du Canada d
etient un mandat unique,
etant donn
equesonobjectifprincipalestde
superviser le comportement des titulaires de charge publique. Cet article s’appuie sur
un examen exhaustif des rapports et des recommandations de la commissaire, ainsi
que sur une analyse du contenu des comparutions au comit
e, dans le but d’analyser et
de comprendre les r
epercussions et le r^
ole de la CCIE. Contrairement
alimage
d’autres agents dans la litt
erature existante, nous concluons que le Commissariat de la
CCIE est limit
e dans son mandat et sa port
ee
a cause de sa relation avec le Parlement.
One increasingly prominent institutional feature that purportedly enhances
Parliament’s accountability function is the officer of Parliament. These
agents assist the legislature “in holding ministers and the bureaucracy
accountable” (Thomas 2003) by providing oversight on a particular area of
concern. These areas can range from public spending and elections to the
protection of certain rights or values, like privacy or ethics. As Hurtubise-
Loranger notes, “there is no statutory definition of what constitutes an offi-
cer of Parliament in Canada” (2008: 71). However, key features of the
Gwyneth Bergman is Doctoral Student, Political Studies, Queen’s University. Emmett
Macfarlane is Associate Professor, Political Science, University of Waterloo. This research
was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
CANADIAN PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION / ADMINISTRATION PUBLIQUE DU CANADA
VOLUME 61, NO. 1 (MARCH/MARS 2018), PP. 5–25
V
CThe Institute of Public Administration of Canada/L’Institut d’administration publique du Canada 2018
position include: independence from the government of the day, a means
of appointment, a mandate and term in office that is defined by statute,
and a reporting obligation to one or both houses of Parliament. We con-
sider eight federal officers to fit this baseline criteria: the auditor general,
the official languages commissioner, the privacy commissioner, the chief
electoral officer, the commissioner of lobbying, the access to information
commissioner, the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, and the
public sector integrity commissioner.
Officers of Parliament assist with and improve government accountabil-
ity by providing parliamentarians with independent expert information,
analysis, and oversight. However, some scholars are concerned that these
officers go too far, and are actually supplanting members of Parliament in
their accountability role. These authors cite the recent proliferation of offi-
cers, and their willingness to expand their original mandate to encompass
significant political and policy-making powers (Smith 2013: 117; Sutherland
2002; Savoie 2003: 274; 2008: 167). These analyses are often inserted as sec-
tions titled “Officers of Parliament” within larger works (see, for example,
Savoie 2010: 76–82; Smith 2013: 115), and are frequently homogenizing in
their discussion of the role and impact of officers. For example, Savoie
writes:
New officers of Parliament have been created in recent years without any effort to define a
constitutional niche or to clarify how they fit into the existing constitutional framework. It is
not at all clear how they are to be held accountable or by whom. They all have one thing in
common – they are independent and are free to voice their views even when they may be
serving the interest of their organizations. For the most part, they answer to themselves and
play to the media (2010: 80–81).
At the same time, however, many of the discrete criticisms levelled against
the offices are about issues like mandate creep, and are made in relation
to specific officers, like the auditor general. Savoie writes that,
“pronouncements from the auditor general on general policy and program
effectiveness are ‘all too often interpreted by the opposition, the press and
attentive publics to have the same claim to professional “objectivity” as
financial compliance audits’” (Savoie 2003: 274, citing Aucoin 1997).
Sutherland similarly notes that the auditor general’s mandate has been
“flipped on its head,” where committees of the House of Commons are
now referred to as “stakeholders” and “clients” rather than “the source of
[the auditor general’s] role and authority” (2002: 2). She notes that the offi-
ce’s vision for itself “seems even to overtake the role of the opposition par-
ties” (ibid). Notably, other officers have begun to circumvent Parliament
entirely, by informing the media first of their findings or, as in the case of
the privacy commissioner in 2002, by launching constitutional court chal-
lenges without first consulting Parliament (Savoie 2003: 248–49).
GWYNETH BERGMAN, EMMETT MACFARLANE6
By contrast, some commentators maintain that officers provide a func-
tion that members of Parliament are simply unwilling or unable to perform
themselves, and that the officers therefore supplement, rather than supplant,
Parliament’s accountability role (Stillborn 2010; Bell 2006). Bell notes that
several officers have “insinuated themselves in their own mandates” and
“crossed from commenting neutrally on the administration of certain val-
ues, to actively advocating for these same values in the political sphere”
(2006: 19). Nonetheless, he argues that “mandate creep” is neither surpris-
ing nor problematic, claiming that it represents “the rational maximization
of public expertise” (2006: 19). Still other authors argue that the role of offi-
cers within the broader institutional and constitutional context needs to be
clarified (Thomas 2003; Chaplin 2011a; Whyte 2011). These debates over
the precise role of officers of Parliament raise fundamental questions, not
only about Parliament’s ability to ensure democratic accountability, but
also about how these non-elected actors are exercising policy-making
power.
These debates over the precise role of officers of Parlia-
ment raise fundamental questions, not only about
Parliament’s ability to ensure democratic accountabil-
ity, but also about how these non-elected actors are
exercising policy-making power
While scholars recognize the varied and distinctive roles inhabited by
each officer of Parliament – the breadth of their activities varies consider-
ably in scope and content, and some officers focus exclusively on govern-
ment activities while others “have mandates that are primarily directed at
people who are outside the government” – the literature’s tendency to
study them as a group is noteworthy, and has been actively defended
(Chaplin 2011b: 3–5). For example, Chaplin notes that the nature of their
independence and expertise, consistency in appointing and reporting, and
their broadly-shared public role as oversight authorities or “ethical regu-
lators” all suggest that “what unites them becomes more important than
the distinctions between them” (2011b: 5).
Yet, despite the tendency to analyze the officers as a single group, it
remains unclear whether the institutional concerns raised in the extant lit-
erature can apply to all of the officers of Parliament equally. Notably, a
comprehensive study of the officers of Parliament in Canada has yet to be
conducted (Smith 2013: 116). In recognition of this substantial gap within
the literature, this article offers a case study of the conflict of interest and
ethics commissioner (CIEC). There have only been a handful of relevant
analyses focused on ethics commissioners in the Canadian context prior to
THE IMPACT AND ROLE OF OFFICERS OF PARLIAMENT 7
the establishment of the CIEC (Greene 1991; Saint-Martin 2003) and, as far
as we can identify, only one since the office was created (Fournier 2009).
This article contributes to the developing literature on officers of
Parliament by providing new empirical data on a little examined officer. It
finds that, contrary to many of the concerns raised in the literature about
officers of Parliament, the CIEC suffers from relatively weak formal powers
and influence, with opposition members of Parliament being generally crit-
ical of the commissioner’s restrained approach to her mandate. By examin-
ing the CIEC’s reports and recommendations, incorporating information
from participant interviews, and by conducting a content analysis of the
commissioner’s appearances before relevant parliamentary committees,
this article sheds new light on a little-studied officer of Parliament and on
the broader debates regarding the role of these institutional actors in
Canada’s democratic system.
Background and methodology
The office of the CIEC is a relatively nascent addition to the officers of
Parliament. It emerged from a series of increasingly formal institutional
arrangements primarily related to conflict of interest. The genesis began in
1973 when conflict of interest guidelines were first issued for cabinet minis-
ters (including, for example, restrictions on outside activities and divest-
ment or public declaration requirements). The rules surrounding conflict of
interest were consolidated into a formal code of conduct, the Conflict of
Interest and Post-Employment Code for Public Office Holders, in 1985. The cur-
rent Conflict of Interest Code for the Members of the House of Commons (the
Code) was adopted in 2004, and the Conflict of Interest Act (the Act) – which
established the CIEC as a full-fledged independent officer of Parliament –
was passed into law in 2006 (Fournier 2009: 10). As Fournier notes, Parlia-
mentary ethics regimes began in the provinces and territories well before
the Senate and the House of Commons, with the first independent ethics
commissioner established in Ontario in 1988 (2009: 10).
Mandates of officers are normally outlined by statute, and the CIEC is
no different. In applying the Act and the Code, the commissioner is
charged with “helping appointed and elected officials prevent and avoid
conflicts between their public duties and private interest” (CIEC 2016). The
commissioner provides confidential advice to the prime minister about the
application of the Act, as well as offering advice to individual office holders
about their personal obligations. The commissioner, who for the period of
this study has been Mary Dawson, is free to open an investigation on her
own initiative or following a request made by a member of the House of
Commons or the Senate. In both situations, the investigation may have
been spurred by comments or concerns expressed by the public.
GWYNETH BERGMAN, EMMETT MACFARLANE8
In an interview conducted for this study, Dawson describes four com-
plementary roles that her office incorporates. The first is an advisory role,
where the office receives “declarations from members of public office hold-
ers as to their holdings and as to their activities,” and may include putting
“compliance measures in place, such as if they [public office holders] hold
something they need to divest or they have to put a screen between them
and people coming in.” The office also regularly fields questions from MPs
or public office holders on rules under the Act or Code. The second role is
investigatory, as outlined above. The third is a “broad reporting role,
including publishing the annual reports we do and the reports on spon-
sored travel under the Code, for example.” Finally, the commissioner has
an educative role, ensuring that people understand the rules administered
by the office, both within government and among the public. An important
aspect of this role is dealing with the media. As Dawson states, “we’re care-
ful to keep ourselves open to answering media calls with deadlines and we
take that as a very important part of our [mission]” (interview, March 6,
2017).
Using the CIEC as a case study allows us to address core issues in the
extant literature regarding the impact of the officers of Parliament on gov-
ernment – namely, the effect they have on institutions, actors, and public
policy. Analyzing the reports and recommendations produced by the CIEC
is crucial in this respect: it allows us to better understand how the govern-
ment and parliamentarians respond in the context of a specific officer. One
necessary analytical approach in examining these reports and recommen-
dations is to examine whether new laws, statutory amendments, regulatory
changes, or institutional processes are enacted or reformed following a
report.
The committee appearances and the annual reports
produced by the CIEC offer invaluable insight into the
relationship between the CIEC and Parliament
An examination of the CIEC’s appearances before relevant parliamen-
tary committees provides insight into the relationship between the commis-
sioner and Parliament. This empirical examination can help to answer the
more normative questions raised by critics concerning whether the influ-
ence enjoyed by officers exceeds their intended role and gives them too
much political power. Critically, because it can be difficult to attribute pol-
icy change (it is not always clear, for example, whether legislative or policy
changes are the direct result of a recommendation from an officer), commit-
tee transcripts can sometimes serve to verify policy influence.
THE IMPACT AND ROLE OF OFFICERS OF PARLIAMENT 9
From 2007–2015, the CIEC released a total of 18 general reports – one
each year under the Act and the Code, respectively, as well as a five-year
review of both pieces of legislation. These reports outline the major activi-
ties of the office, what investigations the CIEC has engaged in, and offer
suggestions for improvement. During the same period, the commissioner
also appeared 17 times before the Access to Information, Privacy, and
Ethics (ETHI) committee to review the Act, and five times before the Proce-
dure and House Affairs committee (PROC) to address issues related to the
Code. In 2013, she also appeared in front of the Standing Committee on the
Status of Women.
The committee appearances and the annual reports produced by the
CIEC offer invaluable insight into the relationship between the CIEC and
Parliament. In analyzing the reports, we focus on two primary areas: the
recommendations made and the investigations requested and conducted.
With regard to the recommendations, we note each individual recommen-
dation and whether it falls under the Act or the Code. We then track the
number of times that recommendation appears within a single report, as
well as across different reports. Finally, we record whether there is any
indication that the government has addressed or acknowledged the recom-
mendation. Regarding the investigations, we track the year the investiga-
tion was opened, and whether the investigation falls under the Code or the
Act. We then note the number of complaints made about that issue, and
who requested the investigation (or whether the commissioner self-
initiated it). Finally, we record the results of the investigation and under
which report it appeared. Tracking the investigations of the commissioner
is complex; the reports do not always provide the details necessary to ade-
quately document an investigation. Moreover, the commissioner some-
times discusses the same investigation multiple times in a single report,
making it difficult to avoid double counting. Similarly, once an investiga-
tion was open, it could remain open for several years; keeping track of
those ongoing investigations is challenging.
We also conduct a systematic content analysis of transcripts of all of the
commissioner’s committee appearances from 2007 through 2015. For each
meeting, we note the date of the session and who from the office of the
CIEC was present. Beyond establishing these and other general details
about the committee appearances, including the purpose of the meeting
and the number of topics discussed, we analyze the questions posed by the
committee members. We note the total number of questions, as well as the
number asked by the government and opposition MPs, respectively. Ques-
tions are then sorted by content. This is done to assess which matters are of
interest to members of Parliament, to examine the impact of the commis-
sioner’s recommendations, and to trace the lines of accountability and the
relationship between the CIEC and Parliament. Questions are divided into
GWYNETH BERGMAN, EMMETT MACFARLANE10
six categories, relating to: 1) the CIEC’s mandate; 2) specific policies/issues;
3) the role or impact of the office; 4) procedure and administration; 5) the
governing legislation (the Act or the Code); 6) the priorities of the commit-
tee itself. We collect all questions directed towards the commissioner,
including those that are clarifying or repeating questions. While some dis-
cretion is required when incorporating questions that take the form of
statements, we determined that if any response is expected from the com-
missioner, the statement qualifies as a question.
Finally, we conduct a qualitative assessment of the interactions between
the commissioner and the committee members. This involves tracking
whether there were any interactions that demonstrated:
1. A disagreement with or a challenge of the commissioner’s interpretation of
her mandate. This category encapsulates those moments where MPs
push back against how the commissioner views the limitations or
expansiveness of her mandate. For example, in 2011 the NDP was
being criticized for accepting donations from big labour unions. A
Conservative MP challenged the commissioner’s claim that the NDP’s
behaviour was under the jurisdiction of Elections Canada, rather
than falling under the mandate of the CIEC (5th meeting of ETHI, 41st
Parliament: 5).
2. A disagreement or challenge on a specific policy recommendation. The com-
missioner often makes policy recommendations, and rules on investi-
gations. This category tracks how often MPs express disagreement
with a commissioner’s recommendation to amend the Act or the
Code, or where an MP finds a particular ruling unsatisfactory. These
disagreements can range from wondering whether a particular finan-
cial penalty is sufficient (31st meeting of ETHI, 40th Parliament: 11), to
disagreements with broader recommendations, such as the rules gov-
erning the cooling-off period under the Act (64th meeting of ETHI,
41st Parliament: 5).
3. Agreement with a recommendation or finding. This category attempts to
determine how often MPs agree with the recommendations or investi-
gative findings of the commissioner. There are very few clear indica-
tions of agreement from any members, regardless of party affiliation.
However, one example is the agreement expressed by the Conserva-
tives regarding the importance of conflict of interest screens, particu-
larly in regards to the Raitt report (5th meeting of ETHI, 41st
Parliament: 10).
4. Notice of actions taken or in progress to address a recommendation. This cat-
egory tracks how often the government makes reference to actions
taken to address the commissioner’s recommendations. These referen-
ces can be taken as an indication of whether the government takes the
THE IMPACT AND ROLE OF OFFICERS OF PARLIAMENT 11
work of the commissioner seriously. Notably, there are almost no
cases where the government acknowledges having taken action to
address a recommendation. However, one example occurs in a PROC
meeting, where a Conservative MP informs the committee that some
forms recommended by the commissioner have been approved by the
relevant subcommittee and that the subcommittee’s recommendation
is that they should be accepted by PROC (3rd meeting of PROC, 40th
Parliament: 3).
5. The intent to score partisan points. Often the commissioner’s investiga-
tions act as fodder for one party to criticize the integrity of another.
We track how often the MPs frame their questions and comments in
partisan terms. A straightforward example of this kind of language is
the NDP’s claim “that the Conservatives have come on gangbusters to
sabotage and undermine legitimate work of the committee” (5th meet-
ing of ETHI, 41st Parliament: 7).
This systematic approach to the committee meetings allows us to consis-
tently track the interactions of the commissioner and MPs across each meet-
ing. The following section reviews the results of our research and outlines
the three key findings that were generated. Our first finding elaborates on
the constrained nature of the commissioner’s mandate and her focus on
transparency over ethics. The second finding points to the lack of response
the commissioner’s recommendations have received. Finally, our third
finding nuances the different ways in which the opposition and govern-
ment MPs respond to, and make use of, the commissioner’s work.
Findings
The first finding concerns the relatively constrained nature of the commis-
sioner’s mandate. Our analysis of the commissioner’s recommendations
(summarized in Table 1) demonstrates that she is primarily preoccupied
with issues of conflict of interest, rather than ethics. Each of the categories
noted in Table 1 points to the commissioner’s concern with transparency of
process. Recommendations regarding gifts were primarily focused on the
monetary value at which gifts must be declared, and what qualifies as a
gift. Compliance/disclosure is a broader category concerned with when
real or potential conflicts of interest must be declared, as well as the disclo-
sure of assets; compliance relates to disclosure because the commissioner’s
concerns around compliance are largely oriented towards helping public
office holders meet disclosure deadlines. Similarly, the travel category
counts those recommendations that relate to when travel needs to be
declared, while post-employment recommendations ensure that employees
respect a cooling-off period once they leave their position as a public office
GWYNETH BERGMAN, EMMETT MACFARLANE12
holder. These post-employment requirements ensure that former public
office holders cannot use their previous position as a means of advancing
private interest.
The soliciting of funds/fundraising category counts those recommenda-
tions that attempt to limit the capacity for public office holders to person-
ally solicit funds that advantage themselves or their family and friends,
while the political/partisan recommendations revolve around clarifying
the relationship between public servants and political parties. Furthering
private interests is again a broader category that catches those generic rec-
ommendations that attempt to limit public office holders from gaining pri-
vate advantage from their public position, without reference to a particular
area of concern that falls under one of the other categories. Finally, the cate-
gory for governing legislation covers those recommendations that seek to
change or clarify the language of the Act or the Code, while mandate rec-
ommendations refer to those proposals made by the commissioner to
change the scope or definition of her mandated powers.
As noted above, of particular interest to the commissioner are issues of
transparency with regard to the benefits associated with holding a govern-
ment position; she is not especially interested in regulating the partisan
behaviour of MPs, or commenting on issues of moral substance. As the
commissioner notes:
[The] Office is primarily concerned with situations of conflict of interest as set out in the
Act and in that regard my mandate is clear. My title also includes the word “ethics”, which
suggests broader responsibilities beyond conflict of interest. My mandate in this latter
regard is less clear, as the term “ethics” is not used anywhere in the Act... I do not believe
I have a mandate to address all ethical issues (CIEC 2009: 5).
Table 1. Summary of the CIEC’s Report Recommendations by Category (2007–2015)
1
Recommendation Category Act Code Total
Gifts 5 4 9
Compliance/Disclosure 14 6 20
Travel 2 2 4
Post-employment 7 0 7
Soliciting of funds/fundraising 3 2 5
Political/partisan 1 1 2
Furthering private interests 1 3 4
Governing legislation 40 8 48
Mandate 7 3 10
1
Data gathered from the CIEC’s 2007–2015 Annual reports for the Act and the
Code.
THE IMPACT AND ROLE OF OFFICERS OF PARLIAMENT 13
The commissioner’s mandate, then, is structured to address administrative
concerns and is not meant to be a resource for moral arbitration. This
narrow mandate is reflected in the lack of punitive powers available to the
commissioner. While the CIEC can provide monetary penalties for admin-
istrative issues, such as a failure to comply with deadlines, the office lacks
the resources to punish substantive violations of the Code and the Act. As
noted by the commissioner, “the Act provides for penalties for administra-
tive breaches, but does not do so for clear substantive contraventions”
(CIEC 2011a: 23).
Beyond her inability to punish substantive breaches, the commissioner
lacks the authority to address ethical concerns regarding partisan conduct,
despite frequent requests to do so. Of the eighteen reports released by the
commissioner, seven make reference to the requests received by the com-
missioner to investigate partisan behaviour. The commissioner states that:
“I believe that partisan political conduct is largely beyond the scope of both
the Act and the Code, despite the many related complaints that my Office
receives in this area” (CIEC 2012: 3). That belief is affirmed in recommenda-
tion 19 of the five-year review of the Code, in which the commissioner sug-
gests: “That the House of Commons consider implementing a separate
code of conduct to address the political conduct of Members and their
staff” (CIEC 2013: 16). The frequency with which the commissioner
receives complaints regarding partisan conduct suggests that the mandate
of the commissioner is not sufficiently defined. Based on the investigations
noted in the commissioner’s annual reports, roughly ten percent of the
requests she receives fall outside the scope of her mandate. These requests
can range from issues of partisanship, to concerns regarding the appropri-
ate use of public funds (CIEC 2011a, 2011b), hiring practices in federal
organizations (CIEC 2012), and the amount of money spent on election
advertising (CIEC 2013).
The frequency with which the commissioner receives
complaints regarding partisan conduct suggests that
the mandate of the commissioner is not sufficiently
defined
The lack of clarity in the CIEC’s mandate places the commissioner in a
difficult position. Often, scholars criticize officers of Parliament for over-
stepping their prescribed role and engaging in mandate creep (Bell 2006:
20; Thomas 2003: 308). The CIEC, however, is often criticized for the oppo-
site problem of defining her mandate too narrowly. Frustration with the
commissioner’s narrow interpretation of her mandate is reflected in inter-
views conducted with members of Parliament. When asked how often they
GWYNETH BERGMAN, EMMETT MACFARLANE14
disagree with findings presented by officers of Parliament, MPs on both the
government and opposition side frequently say “never” or “rarely.”
1
The
CIEC, however, is an exception to this general approval, with several MPs
expressing concern that the commissioner has interpreted the scope of her
mandate and the conflict of interest rules too stringently. Others complain
that the commissioner is not vigilant enough. Admittedly, however, in the
words of one MP, “that’s probably because I submitted the complaint to
begin with. I was hoping for a different outcome. And obviously, I submit-
ted it because I thought there was a breach of ethics.”
Parliamentarians express similar frustrations with the commissioner’s
limited interpretation of her mandate during committee hearings. For
example, in one PROC meeting, a Liberal MP suggests to the commissioner
that she needs to be more self-motivated in looking for breaches, rather
than simply waiting for complaints to come her way. The MP states:
I think there’s a lack of initiative that could come from your office in looking at these situa-
tions. I don’t want to label you as a police officer as far as MPs are concerned; however, if
somebody were to make a prohibited lefthand turn in front of a police officer, he wouldn’t
need anybody to tell him, but would go after that particular person. (20th meeting of PROC,
40th Parliament: 6).
These examples demonstrate an obvious dissatisfaction – particularly from
the opposition – with how the commissioner has interpreted and exercised
her mandate.
Contrary to the preferences of some parliamentarians, however,
Commissioner Dawson does not think any changes to her mandate are
warranted. In an interview she states that: “There’s a number of people
that say we should have penalties, significant penalties. I have administra-
tive admonitory penalties for failures to get deadlines met, things like that.
But I don’t have penalties to pose for contraventions of either the Act of the
Code. And I personally think that’s alright. I think the reporting is enough.
So I wouldn’t change that.” Dawson notes that the office tries to prevent
problems rather than punish for problems (interview, March 6, 2017).
While Dawson views her current powers to be sufficient, one key rationale
in favour of increasing them is to ensure greater compliance and to provide
further deterrence. This was the underlying logic of recommendations to
augment the office of the privacy commissioner with the ability to levy
fines and other order-making powers (Houle and Sossin 2010: 166).
Our second major finding is that most of the recommendations made by
the commissioner have not been addressed by Parliament. For example, in
her five-year review of the Act, the commissioner made seventy-five differ-
ent recommendations to the ETHI Committee. In response, the committee
forwarded only nineteen recommendations to the government; of those,
only a handful responded directly to the recommendations made by the
THE IMPACT AND ROLE OF OFFICERS OF PARLIAMENT 15
commissioner (Canada 2013: 69). This minimal engagement with the
CIEC’s recommendations is in part the result of a lack of interaction
between her office and the Parliamentary committees. Notably, the com-
missioner has not been called to appear before either ETHI or PROC to dis-
cuss her annual reports since 2010 (CIEC 2015a: 41). Instead, the
commissioner’s appearances have largely been confined to discussing
financial estimates and conducting the five-year reviews of the Act and the
Code. Furthermore, the commissioner did not appear in front of PROC
between May 2012 and February 2015. Although the five-year review of the
Code was initiated in 2012, it was suspended until early 2015 (CIEC 2015b).
As such, the commissioner’s recommendations for the Code remained
largely ignored during that time period. Nonetheless, the review of the
Code was eventually re-opened, and the commissioner was asked to sub-
mit a new set of recommendations (CIEC 2015b: 22). “The Code was
amended in June 2015 in consequence of that review and the amendments
took effect on October 20, 2015. Those amendments reflect 10 of the [23] rec-
ommendations that Commissioner Dawson made in her written submission
to the committee” (J. Brisebois, personal communication, April 20, 2016).
The absence of significant media attention and the
attendant public pressure suggests that the CIEC’s
ability to effect policy change is limited to the efficacy
of her reports and recommendations in convincing
parliamentarians or the government to act
Critically, the commissioner has little recourse when serious constraints
are placed on her appearances before the two key standing committees.
Contrary to the assertion noted in the previous section that officers of Par-
liament routinely bypass Parliament by dealing directly with the media or
using other forms of communication, there is little evidence to suggest that
the CIEC engages in such tactics in a regular manner. The CIEC apparently
lacks the informal status granted to some officers of Parliament who main-
tain a level of popularity with the media. For example, there is a signifi-
cantly lower volume in media coverage of the CIEC’s activities when
compared to that of the auditor general.
2
The CIEC issues news releases on
a semi-regular basis; however, a review of these show that they are usually
pro forma to the extent that they typically coincide with the submission of
reports. Furthermore, media statements are relatively rare, and have been
issued to provide comments on parliamentary take-up on recommenda-
tions. Since the CIEC office was established in June, 2007, Canada’s two
national newspapers – the Globe and Mail, and the National Post – have pub-
lished 88 and 85 news articles, op-eds, or editorials referencing the CIEC,
GWYNETH BERGMAN, EMMETT MACFARLANE16
respectively. Of these 173 total articles, only 41 report on the office’s reports
or recommendations, an average of less than five per year in two of Cana-
da’s most notable newspapers. The lack of both formal power and informal
status suggests that the principal means available to the commissioner to
advance and fulfill her mandate is through issuing reports. The absence of
significant media attention and the attendant public pressure suggests that
the CIEC’s ability to effect policy change is limited to the efficacy of her
reports and recommendations in convincing parliamentarians or the gov-
ernment to act.
Our third and final major finding is that the commissioner’s committee
appearances reveal important differences in the relationship between the
CIEC and government MPs, and that which the commissioner has with
opposition MPs; this is reflected most immediately in how the parties
engage in partisanship during the committee meetings. Notably, opposi-
tion MPs are twice as likely as government MPs to ask questions or make
comments to score partisan points. Partisan statements are identified as
comments made to attack or belittle the other side. Such statements can
include making derisive comments about other parties, or flaunting
successes.
Since opposition MPs are more likely to use the commissioner’s investi-
gations as partisan fodder – indeed, to hold the government to account –
they are more inclined to ask about specific policies, reports, and issues
than government MPs. While the opposition MPs in ETHI asked 200 ques-
tions regarding specific policies, reports, and issues, the government raised
only 61 questions. Similarly, while the opposition MPs in PROC asked 114
questions about specific policies and issues, the government asked only 36.
The opposition MPs’ interest in specific policies, reports, and issues makes
sense because they are trying to draw attention to any findings that might
embarrass or call the government to account. For example, in a single ETHI
meeting, the opposition MPs ask about the investigations of Lisa Raitt, Rick
Dykstra, Stockwell Day, Jim Flaherty, and Dean Del Mastro (5th meeting of
ETHI, 41st Parliament). Conversely, the only controversy government MPs
point to is the NDP’s acceptance of union sponsorship for their convention
(5th meeting of ETHI, 41st Parliament). The opposition gains significantly
more political and partisan leverage from the commissioner’s reports than
do government MPs, who largely maintain a defensive stance to opposition
attacks.
Beyond partisanship, however, there are also some clear trends and sim-
ilarities that can be seen in the types of questions asked by the government
and opposition parties (summarized in Table 2). Specifically, both the gov-
ernment and opposition MPs in ETHI focus the majority of their questions
on issues of procedure and administration. Procedural and administrative
questions tended to focus on the functioning of the office. Examples
THE IMPACT AND ROLE OF OFFICERS OF PARLIAMENT 17
include asking about the criteria used to judge whether an investigation
should be initiated (28th meeting of ETHI, 41st Parliament: 5), questions
about the budget and resources (31st meeting of ETHI, 41st Parliament),
and how investigations are processed through the CIEC’s office (9th meet-
ing of ETHI, 40th Parliament).
Opposition MPs, in particular, seem to push back against the CIEC’s
narrow mandate (or the commissioner’s narrow interpretation of it), and
are more likely than government MPs to ask questions about the commis-
sioner’s mandate. Government MPs only asked 15 questions about the
CIEC’s mandate in her ETHI appearances, and did not ask any questions in
the PROC meetings. Conversely, the opposition parties asked 41 questions
regarding the CIEC’s mandate in the ETHI committee meetings, and asked
seven questions during PROC sessions. Similarly, there is evidence to sug-
gest that the opposition MPs were more inclined than the governing party
to challenge the commissioner on her mandate and policy
recommendations.
There are also significant differences between the types of questions
asked by the government regarding the commissioner’s mandate, and
Table 2. Summary of Questions Asked by the Government and Opposition during
ETHI and PROC Sessions with the CIEC
2
Category of Questions
Government
(ETHI)
Opposition
(ETHI)
Government
(PROC)
Opposition
(PROC)
Mandate 15 41 0 7
Specific policies/issues 61 200 36 114
Role/impact of the office 36 45 7 10
Procedure/administration 231 258 21 48
Governing legislation 65 94 17 23
Committee role/priorities 6 10 9 2
Category of Comments
Challenging mandate 2 17 2 2
Challenging policy
recommendation/finding
4104 9
Agreement with recommendations/
finding
7132
Notice of actions taken/in progress
to address recommendation
0120
Comments/questions to score
partisan points
17 31 3 9
2
Data gathered from the 2007–2015 PROC and ETHI meeting transcripts. Table 2
incorporates only those meetings where a member from the office of the CIEC
was present.
GWYNETH BERGMAN, EMMETT MACFARLANE18
those put forward by the opposition. The government’s questions focus
mostly on clarification; they seek to confirm the CIEC’s current mandate.
For example, one Conservative MP asks the commissioner: “Do you feel
that the budget that you have is providing you with the adequate resources
to create your legislated mandate?” (31st meeting of ETHI, 41st parliament:
13). Another asks, “So you have the freedom to investigate pretty well any-
thing that you feel is warranted?” (14th meeting of ETHI, 40th parliament:
7). These questions are, on the surface, neutral. They imply no approval or
disapproval of the commissioner’s mandate; they simply attempt to estab-
lish facts. However, a more cynical interpretation might suggest that gov-
ernment MPs have an incentive in encouraging the commissioner to
confirm that she can conduct relevant investigations with her current
resources and mandate. In other words, such questions may be geared to
signalling that the status quo is functioning and adequate.
The opposition parties, by contrast, put forward more expansive ques-
tions. For example, a number of opposition members ask questions regard-
ing whether there are more powerful ethics commissioners internationally
from which the CIEC could draw inspiration (6th meeting of ETHI, 40th
parliament: 3; 31st meeting of ETHI, 41st parliament: 7). The opposition
MPs are also more concerned about whether the commissioner has the nec-
essary tools to carry out her mandate. One opposition MP confirms: “So
there’s a mismatch between your mandate and the tools you have to dis-
charge that mandate” (31st meeting of ETHI, 41st parliament: 13). Another
MP seems concerned about the rigid limitations on the commissioner’s
capacity to investigate complaints. The MP asks, “If the complaint was
poorly formulated or was not presented in the proper way, do you have
the mandate, or the power, to change course and to investigate in a differ-
ent way?” (9th meeting of ETHI, 40th parliament: 4). These questions imply
that the opposition MPs envision a more expansive mandate for the CIEC,
and a greater level of discretion.
Furthermore, differences are also reflected in the challenges made to the
commissioner’s mandate and recommendations. The challenges produced
by the government are fairly limited and infrequent. Over the course of the
CIEC’s 23 committee appearances, the government only challenged the
commissioner’s mandate four times, and challenged her recommendations
only eight times. The government tends to disagree that the CIEC should
be given more interpretive and discretionary powers, and expresses frus-
tration around the commissioner’s attempts to limit the monetary value of
acceptable gifts and prevent the furthering of private interests (31st meet-
ing of ETHI, 40th parliament: 12; 70th meeting of ETHI, 41st parliament: 14;
40th meeting of PROC, 41st parliament: 8; 69th meeting of PROC, 41st
parliament).
THE IMPACT AND ROLE OF OFFICERS OF PARLIAMENT 19
The opposition parties are much more critical. They challenge the man-
date and the recommendations of the CIEC at least 19 times at each of the
two committees. The opposition parties criticize the CIEC for being
“toothless,” and question her ability to deter violations of the Act and the
Code (27th meeting of ETHI, 40th parliament: 8); this is particularly true
regarding the commissioner’s inability to enforce post-employment obliga-
tions (31st meeting of ETHI, 40th parliament: 9). They further request that
the commissioner take more initiative in opening investigations (20th meet-
ing of PROC, 40th parliament: 6). These challenges by the opposition reflect
statements made by the commissioner in her reports, that the demands
being placed on her office far exceed the actual scope of her mandate.
Based on the types of questions and interactions we analyzed, the work of
the committees is both substantive and inherently political or partisan.
More significantly, our findings suggest that, rather than “supplanting” the
opposition, the CIEC, her findings, and her committee appearances are
used by the opposition as a foil against the government. In other words,
the commissioner’s work is actively used by the opposition to (attempt to)
hold the government to account.
Implications and conclusion
The ultimate authority of officers of Parliament to act, affect policy, and to
represent interests can be limited by the willingness and ability of Parlia-
ment or the government to engage with their recommendations. This case
study suggests that the impact and role of the CIEC diverges from the
sometimes homogenizing portrayal of officers as a group. Tasked with
monitoring compliance and providing advice to public office holders
regarding the Code and the Act, the CIEC has relatively constrained meth-
ods of advancing her primary agenda; as noted above, she lacks the author-
ity to punish substantive breaches of the Act and the Code. Under the
Code, the commissioner cannot even compel third-party witnesses to be
interviewed or produce necessary documents (CIEC 2011b: 13–14). The
CIEC is limited by a narrow mandate (or a narrow interpretation of it),
insofar as her mandate is gauged by the responsiveness of government and
the desires of the opposition.
One major obstacle for the period studied has been that government con-
trol of the committee process has severely limited the CIEC’s presence in
Parliament. As noted above, the commissioner’s activities under the Code
were effectively ignored between 2012 and 2015 – at least as it relates to
review work ordinarily conducted by PROC. Moreover, particularly in the
case of the five-year review of the Act, there is little evidence to suggest
that the commissioner’s recommendations have been seriously considered.
While the CIEC has served as a valuable resource of advice to members of
GWYNETH BERGMAN, EMMETT MACFARLANE20
Parliament, her broader policy role has been limited by infrequent interac-
tions with the institution of Parliament itself. Barring occasions where sig-
nificant controversies capture the attention of the media and public – for
example, the commissioner’s 2011 report finding that former Conservative
cabinet minister Helena Guergis violated the Code by making a recommen-
dation in the best interests of her husband (Minsky 2011) – an officer of Par-
liament has few resources or influence in such an institutional climate.
Despite this, it should be noted that Commissioner Dawson is not con-
cerned about the quantity or quality of her interactions with Parliament.
She states, “if they’re not calling on me, they must be happy enough with
the report. They probably don’t have any heavy concerns with what’s
going on in the office” (interview, March 6, 2017).
The CIEC is limited by a narrow mandate (or a nar-
row interpretation of it), insofar as her mandate is
gauged by the responsiveness of government and the
desires of the opposition
Critically, however, the commissioner has begun to challenge elements
of the governing legislation that limit her capacity to talk to media. In par-
ticular, the commissioner recommends in four separate reports that, when
a request for an examination is rejected, she be allowed to publicly disclose
the reasons for declining to investigate – particularly when there is misin-
formation or it is in the public interest to do so. Should the commissioner
succeed in gaining approval for her recommendations, improved transpar-
ency and a greater status in the eyes of the media and parliamentarians
could result. Despite the persistence of these and other recommendations,
however, much of the CIEC’s significance seems to have been relegated to
an educational and advisory role for public office holders and MPs. This is
something that the commissioner observes throughout her reports and
committee appearances, and was confirmed in our interview with Commis-
sioner Dawson. However, the evidence outlined above suggests that oppo-
sition MPs are not satisfied with such a minimalist role. As one member of
the NDP noted during an ETHI meeting: “I’m concerned because...These
are serious breaches of conflict of interest, and yet you have no ability to
assess penalties. You say your role is educational” (Ibid: 12). While interac-
tions such as these demonstrate that the commissioner has been assigned a
weaker role in comparison to some of the other officers of Parliament, they
also suggest that opposition members would like to have more opportuni-
ties to engage with the commissioner. The issues under the CIEC’s purview
have generally sustained the attention of members of Parliament, especially
opposition members. Where the institutional lines of communication are
THE IMPACT AND ROLE OF OFFICERS OF PARLIAMENT 21
less than ideal, the commissioner’s mandated powers to receive requests
and complaints from individual members, and to pursue investigations,
means that her core role remains fulfilled, even where broader policy rec-
ommendations go unheeded. In this sense, then, there exists a greater
potential policy role for the commissioner.
The degree to which the CIEC’s role is “too narrow” is ultimately a nor-
mative question. Further, it is difficult to empirically gauge the extent to
which the relatively restrained activity of the CIEC is a product of the man-
date itself or the general approach and style of the individual officer-
holder, Commissioner Dawson. Our analysis suggests there is some reason
to believe it is both. The lack of formal powers to sanction breaches and the
near-exclusive focus on conflict of interest rather than broader ethical
issues has been raised by parliamentarians and acknowledged by the com-
missioner herself. Yet, as noted above, Dawson states that she does not
think an expanded role or increased powers are desirable. It is not difficult
to imagine a different person in her role reaching the opposite conclusion,
particularly in the face of complaints from members of Parliament. Simi-
larly, a different individual in her position might be frustrated by the
refusal of a committee to call on her for a significant length of time, as
occurred with PROC during the period of study. This is not to suggest that
one view is correct and the other is not; rather, our analysis suggests both
that the CIEC has relatively weak authority compared to other officers and
also that the commissioner has taken a fairly restrained approach to her
role during the period of study.
The impact of the CIEC on responsible government remains to be seen.
This article only examines the period of one government – the Conservative
Government under Prime Minster Stephen Harper from 2007–2015; things
might operate differently under the current Liberal government, including
the commissioner’s appearances before Parliament and government recep-
tivity to recommendations. The CIEC stands at a crossroads. While the
commissioner’s work has sustained the interest of the opposition, her
capacity to represent the interests of both the public and parliamentarians
is limited by the scope of her mandate and the narrow range of formal
powers extended to her. Confined largely to an advisory and administra-
tive role, she possesses limited opportunities to influence policy or the
political agenda. While her reports have served as fodder for MPs to raise
questions of accountability, there are few available opportunities for the
commissioner to address issues substantively. Moreover, the lack of
engagement by parliamentarians and the media with the work of the CIEC
limits the capacity of the office to exercise informal power. Ultimately, only
the development of the office overtime and the shaping of its mandate by
different commissioners will determine whether the CIEC will remain an
GWYNETH BERGMAN, EMMETT MACFARLANE22
important outlier to the sometimes homogenizing portrayal of officers of
Parliament within the extant literature.
Notes
1 A total of 17 interviews have been conducted for this article as well as part of a broader
project on officers of Parliament.
2 In a separate component of a broader project on officers of Parliament, we collected
news articles from Canada’s two national newspapers – the Globe and Mail and the
National Post – from 2006–2015. The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner gar-
nered less than one-sixth the total media attention, in terms of number of articles, than
the auditor general.
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THE IMPACT AND ROLE OF OFFICERS OF PARLIAMENT 25
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This paper analyses an establishment-based data set of voluntary quits. Exit interview data identifies two discrete types of quitters, viz. those who quit to accept alternative jobs offering superior terms and conditions of employment and those who quit for other reasons and without having alternative jobs to go to. A binomial logit model is estimated to identify the probability of quitting for reasons of having been offered and having accepted alternative employment. This probability is seen to be both gender and grade related. Females are less likely to quit for this reason. Individuals occupying the financially better rewarded grades are more likely to quit for this reason. Policy recommendations are forwarded based on the analysis.
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Officers of Parliament were a little noticed feature of Canada's cabinet parliamentary system until the privacy commissioner was forced to resign in June 2003. This article analyses the past, present and future of these institutions, which were created to assist Parliament in holding responsible ministers and the bureaucracy accountable and to protect certain rights of individual Canadians. The fundamental issue is how to balance these offices' independence from both the executive and Parliament with an appropriate measure of accountability for their performance. The article examines five structural features that determine the nature of these interactions and suggests that there needs to be greater clarity in these relationships. The primary relationship in terms of responsibility and accountability of officers of Parliament should be with Parliament. Reforms are recommended to recognize and to reinforce the primacy of that relationship.