Whether it was the revelations to the Charbonneau Commission that drove sitting mayors from office; the Rob Ford Gong Show; the Robocalls finger-pointing; or the relatively small potatoes Senate scandal with its massive, resultant PMO-orchestrated coverup campaign, the public became mesmerized - not by the issues of the day, but rather by the unveiling of a political culture that appears to have gone off of the rails. As citizens, it has become clear that we have been cheated, lied to, and manipulated by a small group of public servants who chose to put their own egos and personal gain ahead of their responsibility to society at large. In response, we have all created our own personal rogues galleries of villains and fools, clucked our tongues and shouted from the rooftops to "throw the bums out".
Unfortunately in these days of the 140 character tweet, discussions of these issues, while extensive, have tended to be shallow and glib. By focusing on the "who knew what when" details of events, we haven't taken the time to sit back and wonder how, in a mature democracy like Canada, these things could have happened in the first place. What it comes down to is a failure of the basic duties of good governance.
So, here is my question, if our elected officials had followed, and our institutional structures had been designed to protect, these three basic tenets of good governance, would we be in this mess?
1. The Duty of Knowledge demands that all members ensure that they have all the possible information at hand to make a responsible and informed decision on the issues. The goal of this kind of monitoring is for the elected representatives (MPs, MPPs, MLAs, Councillors, etc.) to hold the Executive (Cabinet, Mayor) accountable for the effective management of government services. Awareness of long term trends and patterns as well as statistical comparators with other jurisdictions protect the Members and the leadership from making knee-jerk reactions to changing circumstances. In addition, a solid command of the data makes it easier for representatives to inform their constituents. In the final analysis, the more a legislator knows, the better she or he can do her or his job.This is the governance lesson that Kevin Page, the former PBO, tried to teach in Ottawa for the past five years;
2. The Duty of Care and Diligence is a prime requisite of any legislator. Practically speaking, this means that each representative must exercise a level of care with respect to the performance of their responsibility including: reviewing the agenda/order paper and support materials prior to any meeting; attending all scheduled sessions and committee meetings; arriving prepared to discuss the issues on the table in a reasonable and informed fashion; and being ready to take a clear position - and vote - on any matters put before them (with the exception of those areas of possible conflict of interest). In addition, it has been established through Common Law that a legislator must "perform his [sic] duties...with a degree of skill that may reasonably be expected from a person of his knowledge and experience". Furthermore it is expected that with respect to diligence that the legislator exercise "such care as an ordinary man might be expected to take on his own behalf." This is a dual subjective and objective test, and one deliberately aimed to ensure personal accountability and "sober second thought". And, finally;
3. The Fiduciary Duty of all representatives is to act honestly and in good faith; to be loyal to and act in the best interests of the nation (province, municipality); to avoid any conflict of interest; and to subordinate every personal [and party] interest to those of the general public.
It is hard to imagine that, if all legislative bodies and their members were to follow these three basic duties that we could ever have had a year like the last one. Mayors who lined their pockets or lied to their constituents; Senators who claimed (and double-claimed) fraudulent expenses; a PMO that tried to scuttle a legislative inquiry and cover-up potentially illegal acts to protect a fundraiser; Parliamentary committees that were given inaccurate financial information upon which to make key decisions; political aides who shredded documents to thwart an inquiry; municipal, provincial and federal policies and positions designed not for the greater good, but for political advantage as wedge issues to woo segments of the voting public...need I go on?
The only good thing that we can say about governance in the past year is that, thanks to some of our processes for oversight such as Elections Canada and the RCMP, we are gradually learning about other troubling governance issues such as attempts at voter suppression and electoral fraud and over-expenditure.
So what is my New Year's resolution with respect to demanding more vigilance on Governance? My motto in dealing with all levels of government this year is a quote from Lieutenant-Commander Montgomery Scott (aka Canadian Jimmy Doohan): "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!"