Ed Broadbent (Interview)

With more than two decades of parliamentary experience - including 14 years as NDP leader - Ed BROADBENT has seen his share of federal scandals.

Broadbent, Ed (Interview)

With more than two decades of parliamentary experience - including 14 years as NDP leader - Ed BROADBENT has seen his share of federal scandals. He recently released a seven-point ethics plan that includes tougher rules for lobbyists and patronage appointments as well as better access to information. Because of his wife's illness, Broadbent, 69, will not be running in the next election.

Justice John Gomery has determined that the Liberals established the sponsorship program, ran it, and used it to funnel public money into their party. He found that the program involved illegal contributions and kickbacks ...

Not to mention greed and venality.

Yet despite all this, the Liberals are still leading in the polls. Do Canadians have a high tolerance for this sort of thing, or is it just that they believe one party's not going to be any cleaner than the other?

Or they have other priorities. I think that's closer to the truth. Canadians, like democratic citizens anywhere, aren't lined up in one direction. Ethics are obviously very important to them, but at the same time other things, whether it's post-secondary education for their children or the health care system, these drive people, too. So while they may be really ticked off, voters may say, "Well, given the alternatives, I'll still come back to the Liberals." Having said that, I haven't the slightest doubt that in the forthcoming election, ethics and accountability will play a leading role in shaping people's decisions.

Is any government going to be sufficiently motivated to make real change on ethical issues without overwhelming public pressure?

I think ethics are as serious a problem as they've been in my political life ... and it still will not determine final [electoral] outcomes. If we just look at the country south of the border, a different kind of scandal involving a former president, Clinton, was front and centre - in fact, he was impeached over it - and yet Americans, on balance, came to regard Mr. Clinton rather favourably. And I understand and respect that. It's part of the real hard-headed democratic citizen's range of options to say, "These guys don't behave ethically, but I like what they do."

But you mentioned in a recent speech that the government in the past year has done little beyond dealing with damage on ethical issues, so these things do interfere with good government.

Yes, they do. In the past 12 months, Question Period has been loaded with ethical questions. And I think the lingering concern that I have, speaking frankly as a guy who's spent most of his adult life as a member of Parliament, is what Mr. Gomery himself said: it's a culture of entitlement that characterized the Liberals. And it persists. You know, Martin called for change in his initial response to the Gomery scandal, but he then appointed a political staffer as an ambassador to Costa Rica. We've seen [former Liberal cabinet minister] David Dingwall's questionable lobbying techniques, and he was defended by two cabinet ministers the day the story broke, before any of the details were known.

My favourite is Art Eggleton having to resign over putting his girlfriend on the payroll, and then Martin appointing him to the Senate.

Exactly, right. So the cronyism is still there with Paul MARTIN.

But doesn't that confirm my point that we're not taking this seriously enough? The government doesn't expect to pay a penalty in the polls. Also, if these things are of real concern, couldn't the NDP have demanded ethical reform in return for supporting the Liberals' minority government last spring?

Well, not last spring. That was entirely a budgetary matter, but these issues were certainly key to the unravelling of our support for the government. In the fall, Jack LAYTON, as leader, and I raised a whole series of these ethical questions about lobbyists, about access to information legislation, and so on. All of these things led to our decision to publicly say the Liberals no longer have our confidence. About four weeks ago, on behalf of the party, I released a seven-point ethical accountability reform package, and if I may say so we did this some three weeks ahead of the Conservatives. The Conservative package, by the way, is very good. Our emphasis has been, "Well, look at what Paul Martin's done since [Gomery]." There hasn't been a cleaning up. The greed is still there, the culture of entitlement is certainly there. Tony Blair's had at least three or four ministers who have resigned from his government on principle, but that never happens here. I mean, a Liberal cabinet minister would rather go to hell than give up his cabinet position.

You mentioned your seven-point plan, which covers everything from access to information to lobbying restrictions. What single thing in that plan would go the furthest to improving ethics in government?

We need much tougher laws that require disclosure of fees and expenditures of lobbyists, but we also need to make illegal the acceptance of lobbying fees based on outcomes. Then we need to reform the process by which appointments are made to the thousands of federal boards, agencies and commissions across the country. I've pushed for a total revamping of all the boards and commissions to make competence-related criteria the condition of appointment. You shouldn't get the job because you're a former chief of staff to the prime minister, or you're André Ouellet, Dingwall, you name them.

On the lobbying point, I think the Conservatives have proposed that cabinet ministers and senior officials should be made to wait five years after leaving office before they can lobby in Ottawa. Is that worthwhile?

Yes. I think that, right now, that's one thing that we're agreed on, the Conservatives and us. There's a big overlap on these issues.

I don't want to be cynical about this, but this is a real departure from how politics has traditionally worked in Canada. If we close off all partisan appointments and don't allow people to sit on some board or commission as political appointees, and if we don't allow senior officials to become lobbyists or to take appointments once out of office, are people still going to be willing to commit a lot of time and effort to the political process?

I think that you will derive activist support from a different category of people. Virtually all the proposals that I've made on behalf of my party have been put in place in western European governments. We're one of the few places that still have these political appointees. It goes hand in glove with this culture of entitlement that we think is normal. It wasn't that long ago, in a certain province, where a premier who shall go nameless would sit down in a church basement and put $10 bills in envelopes for people coming to see him. Well, we've progressed beyond that. Now, I think most people working for parties are not motivated by patronage jobs. A certain number wheel and deal, but if you look at the grassroots support of the parties, they're in it because they believe in what they're doing. I deeply believe that by cleaning up the rules you won't affect the number of people who will work for political parties, but you will deter a number of the people who are in it for their own benefit.

So if there are only benefits to cleaning up government, and no penalty for a party in government to making these changes, why haven't they been made?

That's the $64,000 question. I don't have the answer.

I want to talk about another of your specific proposals - the Belinda Stronach rule. You are proposing that anyone who, as a matter of conscience or for whatever reason, decides to resign as a member of one party and cross the floor to join another party, he or she should be required to resign the seat and run in a by-election first.

Yeah, if they're crossing the floor. They should retain the right to resign from their party and to sit as an independent for the rest of the term.

And you would not allow them to be appointed, as independent MPs, to cabinet or any other office?

Not without going the by-election route. There was a big uproar here, not just amongst Tories, with Belinda Stronach ... I'm singling her out simply because she was the most recent. People just don't like this sort of thing, and I'm sympathetic to the men and women who voted for her. Most politicians know that at least 80 per cent of the votes they get are for the party and not for them individually.

Is there any difference among the parties in terms of ethical behaviour? I remember that former NDP leader Tommy Douglas once said the Liberals will give you stable government, if you can stand the smell of the stable.

That sounds like Tommy! A good Saskatchewan metaphor.

Is the Liberal party involved in more of this stuff because it's in government more, or because they have more of a culture of expedience there, or are all politicians human and prone to error?

I think a combination of all three. I don't think Liberals are genetically predisposed to evil, and I won't be facetious on that point. But all human beings are corruptible, potentially. That's why we need institutions that work against that culture of entitlement. It's the culture that builds up, I think, in a party like the Liberals in Canada, like some other parties in democratic western Europe that have been in power for a disproportionate amount of time. It becomes unconscious when you've had power for so long. And that's why it's so important to have rules.

A lot of the newspapers used the word "exonerated" with regard to the Prime Minister and the Gomery report, suggesting that Paul Martin really had nothing to do with it. A few other commentators have suggested that while Martin wasn't the brains behind the sponsorship program he was a leading figure in the government and the party, so it's inconceivable he couldn't have known about it. Where do you stand?

Well, I stand on the argument that he's accountable, for exactly the list of positions he had: vice-president of the Treasury Board, minister of finance - the second most powerful position in government - and an MP from the province of Quebec. It's the cabinet positions especially that make him accountable. When Mike Harcourt was premier, there was a scandal in one riding in British Columbia - a former cabinet minister in the NDP was involved in fundraising for a charitable organization, and he was funnelling off some [of the money] to his local riding association. Mike Harcourt didn't even know about this, but he resigned. And that really struck me at the time. I said to myself, in my years in federal politics I couldn't imagine some federal cabinet minister doing this.

We should have Justice Gomery's final report in February. What do you expect, and do you think his recommendations will be implemented?

I imagine there will be serious recommendations aimed at avoiding these kinds of problems in the future. But, you know, even if it all gets implemented, there will still be problems. These things sometimes happened because good rules were simply bypassed. So you come back to a pretty banal political point that those of us who regard ourselves as reformers should keep in mind: the best institutions can fail if you don't have good people.

See also GOMERY INQUIRY.

Maclean's November 28, 2005