New Prime Minister Harper Promises Tougher Ethics Rules

When a new prime minister wins power, sorting out who's in and who's history is the first order of business around Parliament Hill.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 13, 2006

When a new prime minister wins power, sorting out who's in and who's history is the first order of business around Parliament Hill.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 13, 2006

New Prime Minister Harper Promises Tougher Ethics Rules

When a new prime minister wins power, sorting out who's in and who's history is the first order of business around Parliament Hill. That usually means identifying the best-connected lawyers, lobbyists and pollsters, learning which deep thinkers' ideas are in favour, which backroom strategists hold sway. Plenty of that is going on as Stephen HARPER takes control, but mapping the new channels of influence is trickier than usual this time. The rules of the game are changing along with the players. After a string of scandals, the LIBERALS were already imposing more stringent accountability regulations inside government, and had dramatically reformed party financing laws. Harper vows to make his own wide-ranging ethics package his first priority. Add to that the sweeping recommendations in the final report from Justice John Gomery on the sponsorship affair, and the regime change starts to look more like a revolution.

The new climate could cramp the style of wheelers and dealers, and lend the Harper government a certain air of austerity. But the Prime Minister and most of the Tories taking control under him are strangers to federal power. So for them, it won't be a matter of unlearning old habits. For the Liberals, though, as they embark on the dual task of rebuilding their party and choosing a leader, adapting to the emerging reality of tougher ethics restrictions could upend age-old relationships between money and power, private interests and public office.

The roster of high-powered, high-profile Liberals who have chosen not to seek to succeed Paul MARTIN suggests a party whose establishment isn't what it once was. First John Manley, then Frank McKenna, Brian Tobin and Allan Rock, all political heavyweights during the Jean CHRÉTIEN era, declared they won't contest the leadership. They cited various personal reasons. Another factor could be that anyone considering a bid must take into account the new legal limit on contributions - no business donations, and no more than $5,200 from any individual, including the candidate. Those 2004 rules tend to level the playing field, forcing big shots and long shots alike to raise money in small donations. That shrinks the advantage well-off, well-known contenders have had over dark horses in past races.

The extension of tight financing rules to the Liberal leadership sweepstakes is only one sign of the times. Harper's proposed Federal Accountability Act could further undermine old ways of operating. Those who understand the linkages among politicians, mandarins and business are staggered. "It's massive," says Sean Moore, a public policy and lobbying expert at the Establishment law firm Gowlings. "It's the biggest and most comprehensive package on this that we've ever seen."

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Harper's package is where many of the ideas came from. Who would have guessed that a tiny cell of ethical-government fanatics inspired by American lefty icon Ralph Nader would have any pull with the Conservatives? Yet Democracy Watch, the Ottawa advocacy group, seems to be very much in. Duff Conacher, its sole employee, met last spring with Harper aide Mark Cameron to outline his prescription for clean government. The briefing apparently took. Harper's framework contains dozens of points uncannily similar to Democracy Watch demands - including banning lobbying by former cabinet ministers, their staffers and senior bureaucrats for five years after they leave government, and slashing the allowed individual contribution to political parties to $1,000 from the current $5,200.

The result could be a government - and a Liberal opposition - unlike any before. Take Harper's own prerogatives. Prime ministers often rule by rewarding loyalty, but he has vowed to give up much of his ability to make patronage appointments. Or consider the relationship between top bureaucrats and their ministers. Gomery calls for new rules to empower deputy ministers to say "no" more freely if they sense their masters want to bend or break rules. And then there are all those young, ambitious party operatives. Harper promises to make it impossible for them to move freely from ministerial staff jobs to stints outside government as lobbyists, or to jump the queue to win public service positions.

Liberals point out that Harper is building on reforms started by Chrétien and continued by Martin. "I don't think you can draw a black-and-white picture of the Liberal party having to change its culture as a result of this defeat," says Toronto MP John Godfrey, a former Martin cabinet minister. "It's been an evolution." Still, Harper's plan to give up patronage power and limit his party faithful's chances for federal jobs has implications beyond his own term. With their long experience in power, Liberals are more accustomed to moving between political and private sector roles than Harper's Tories. Ruth Thorkelson, for instance, jumped from being a senior aide to Martin when he was finance minister, to lobbyist for the Forest Products Association of Canada, and back to a top job in his Prime Minister's Office. Harper aims to put up barriers to that sort of career path - which means Liberals now preparing to toil in opposition will have to get used to the idea that returning to power someday won't mean regaining quite the same privileged position they lost on Jan. 23.

Liberal optimists argue all the new rules will actually help the party revive itself. Lloyd AXWORTHY, the Chrétien-era foreign minister who is now University of Winnipeg president, says the party grew "a little too chi-chi" - a reference to the slick consultants and lobbyists who dominated Martin's coterie. He argues for a long leadership race, to give the party time to re-engage with its membership. "Let's put on hold the celebrity stargazing," Axworthy says, "and think about what it means to be a Liberal."

In fact, with business donations banned and personal ones strictly limited, the party has little choice but to appeal to its grassroots to pay down its post-election debt, the size of which has not been disclosed. Former Liberal president Stephen LeDrew says the party needs to emulate the Tories' success in persuading many members to give small, regular contributions. "It has stood them well," he said. "Frankly we haven't developed it quickly enough. It's not an easy thing to do."

Reaching out to rank-and-file members for money could parallel a Liberal bid to connect with ordinary voters. LeDrew points to what Bill Clinton accomplished in the U.S. Democratic party in the 1990s: "He took it out of the hands of the New York and Boston elites." The Conservatives' success in making inroads with middle-class voters has Liberals debating how they must adapt to stop the Tories from expanding further into the mainstream. Some argue the party must edge rightward. But others contend the bigger threat is from the NDP, which gained 10 seats, leaving Liberals no choice but to shore up their centre-left base. "The problem Canadian progressives face now is exactly the one conservatives had in the 1990s, when the right voice was split," Godfrey says. "As long as they're united and we're divided, they can win."

Whatever formula the Liberals settle on, the Ottawa they long dominated looks to be disappearing. How far Harper takes his reforms remains to be seen: there are still plenty of Tory lobbyists, lawyers and hangers-on. But unless his rhetoric proves to be extraordinarily hollow, he is not only assuming federal power, he's aiming to permanently change the way it's wielded. Oddly, the biggest effect could be on the party that no longer has it.

Maclean's February 13, 2006