Marlene Jennings: No law can make up for a lack of personal integrity

Legislation aside, it takes a strong sense of ethics to discourage elected officials from bending political financing rules.

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As a former member of Parliament (1997-2011), I must admit my head ached when I watched and read media coverage about a couple grieving their daughter’s death to a drunk driver who were asked to buy tickets at $100 each to speak with Transport Minister Geneviève Guilbault at a fundraising cocktail. 

Apart from knowing that only physical persons can donate a maximum of $100 a year to a provincial political party, I am not especially experienced with Quebec’s election law as it pertains to donations. However, I did have a fair bit of experience with political financing laws at the federal level.

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When I was first elected, there were no limits on how much an individual or a corporation, trade union, association, etc. could donate to a party and/or local riding association. The laws changed several times during my 14-year tenure. In 2000, the Canada Elections Act was modified to establish more robust and stringent financial disclosure requirements.

In 2003, the act was again amended to create more limits and restrictions on donations, and to incorporate public financing subsidies for parties based on the share of votes obtained. In 2011, the government yet again amended the rules to gradually phase out public funding of political parties, bringing an end to this “public allowance” in 2015.

The need for such adjustments over time demonstrates that financing rules for political parties, at whatever level of government, are imperfect and won’t always succeed in stopping or discouraging elected officials and their staff from trying to monetize the granting of access to them or their minister colleagues. Only a strong personal and professional sense of ethics might do that. 

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At any given period during my time as an MP, I had up to six employees in my Ottawa parliamentary and constituency offices. When I hired each, they were not asked their political affiliation. They were not required to join the Liberal Party of Canada. They were not required to donate to my riding association or to the Liberal party. They were not required to volunteer on my election campaigns.

They were, however, required to be professional, accept my code of ethics, understand and adhere to my vision of integrity and, just as important, abide by federal laws governing lobbyists, conflict of interests, codes of ethics, and so on.

I made it clear to anyone working for me in a salaried position or volunteering in my riding association and on my election campaigns that they would be gone — out the door — if they ever tried to solicit a donation as a condition to meet with me or to have me facilitate a meeting with another MP or minister.

Did Guilbault do that? 

Will officials at Élections Québec, which is now investigating the incident, ask her that question?

What about Quebec’s ethics commissioner, who was already probing some Coalition Avenir Québec backbenchers over similar allegations?

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The point is there is nothing necessarily wrong or lacking with Quebec’s Election Act regarding political donations. But there is no legislating a person’s fundamental values or lack thereof.

When voted in by citizens, elected officials have a duty to establish values and rules beyond the laws by which their employees and volunteers must conduct themselves. Laws cannot anticipate each and every possibility. But individuals in positions of trust have a duty to ensure that anyone working for them understands the values that must inform their conduct when serving the public.

The investigations by Élections Québec and the ethics commissioner presumably will determine whether any laws were broken. But this is more than about the law. This is about knowing the difference between right and wrong. It’s about the responsibility of those in power — from MNAs to ministers to the premier himself — to lay down their own ground rules for ethical behaviour. 

Marlene Jennings is a former president of the Quebec Community Groups Network and a former Liberal MP. She sits on the boards of several community organizations.

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