Political Corruption | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Political Corruption

Political corruption may be defined as behaviour by public officials, elected or appointed, which violates social or legal norms regarding what is or is not legitimate private gain at public expense.

Political corruption may be defined as behaviour by public officials, elected or appointed, which violates social or legal norms regarding what is or is not legitimate private gain at public expense. For example, the direct profiting by an official or his or her family from the use of his official position to secure contracts for the family business is a violation of social and, increasingly, of legal norms, although these norms may change. Political corruption exists in a variety of forms. Some are almost universally condemned. Others are frequently held to be corrupt, but members of the public or political decision makers may disagree as to the ethicality of the behaviour. Finally, there are those behaviours that may be mildly corrupt for many, but which are widely tolerated. Some might argue that behaviour in the latter category is not really corrupt. Rather, it may be socially acceptable, even though it may not be actively encouraged. However, this behaviour is often considered ethically dubious, but it is too difficult to uproot. As a result, we can see acts of corruption as having varying degrees of intensity.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST is a form of political corruption which is quickly becoming universally condemned. Although all corruption constitutes a type of conflict of interest, the term refers to corruption arising from the conflict between the actions of an individual officeholder and the public interest. Examples include having a financial interest which may benefit from an official's decision or vote and in some cases, taking a job in the private sector, with a firm with which one had dealt as a public official. Certain forms of conflict of interest are illegal, eg, in Newfoundland (since 1973), NB (since 1978), Manitoba (since 1986) and Alberta (since 1991). In other jurisdictions, conflict of interest, although not illegal, may violate guidelines and be penalized by resignation from office or temporary suspension. Guidelines, however, lack the force of law, and their implementation often rests on the goodwill and fairness of the government rather than upon the independent judiciary. Such is the case with the Mulroney government's Conflict of Interest and Post-Employment Code for Public Office Holders (1985). Indeed, cabinet minister Sinclair STEVENS resigned in 1986 over conflict of interest.

Vote buying, illegal and proscribed by the Canada Elections Act, is a form of corruption which is almost universally condemned, although some campaign workers and candidates may feel it is simply a pragmatic form of campaigning. As recently as 1975, the then premier of NS admitted publicly that it was still practised in his province. Other illicit electoral practices, eg, forging of ballot papers, voting twice or impersonating another voter, are also proscribed by the Act. Bribery, by which an official is offered, and may even accept, money or other valuable considerations in exchange for doing or not doing what he is expected to do in fulfilment of his official duties, is almost universally condemned as corrupt. Bribery is apparently less common in Canada than in countries where public servants and politicians are poorly paid. Illegal under the Criminal Code, it carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison for the official, the person guilty of bribing the official, or both.

Graft is much like bribery except that the official initiates the exchange, and demands money or other considerations from the public in return for carrying out (or not carrying out) his official duty. Bribery and graft both fall under the same section of the Criminal Code and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between them, even analytically. For example, in 1873 Prime Minister John A. MACDONALD was directly implicated in the PACIFIC SCANDAL when he was charged by the Opposition spokesman and by newspapers with accepting $10 000, during the previous years, in return for his support in Parliament of a group bidding for the railway contract. The evidence took the form of one of the most famous telegrams in Canadian history; on 26 Aug 1872, Macdonald had wired railway lawyer and politician J.J.C. ABBOTT, "I must have another ten thousand." Bribery and graft are also occasionally linked with government licensing or government contracts. Robert Summers, forestry minister for the BC government (1958), became the first Cabinet minister in the Commonwealth to be jailed for corruption in office when he was convicted of accepting bribes.

Influence peddling, which occurs when someone, not necessarily a government official, offers to use his presumed influence over other officials to secure a benefit for another in exchange for a reward, is a somewhat grey form of corruption, not because there is disagreement on the principle but because it is difficult to decide, in practice, what is legitimate influence. Attempts to influence Parliament by means of a petition or by appearing before a legislative committee during a hearing are examples of legitimate tactics, as is an attempt to influence Parliament or a city council by a public demonstration, although this is usually more controversial (see PRESSURE GROUPS). But if a Cabinet minister were to promote mining legislation that would benefit an old friend's company or taxation policies that would help a manufacturer who was also a friend, there would be cause for concern, even if the minister did not benefit personally. These are examples of the "old-boy" network, where political decisions are made not for personal profit but to benefit those who share the same social and economic values as the minister.

The study of ELITE politics is frequently concerned with political decisions that are based on the needs and desires of political, administrative and economic elites. Nevertheless, convictions have occurred under section 110 of the Criminal Code, despite the rather subtle nature of the offences. In May 1983, 2 prominent Nova Scotians were convicted of influence peddling and fined $25 000 each. One was a senator in danger of losing his seat. A third individual had been fined $75 000 in the same case one year earlier. The 3 men were prosecuted for charging a fee from distillers in exchange for their influence in securing the distiller's products a place on government liquor-store shelves.

Corrupt campaign financing provides an excellent illustration of changing social and legal norms. Prior to recent federal and provincial statutory innovations, there was no consensus about the degree of corruption involved in excessive campaign contributions and spending. With laws such as Alberta's Election Finances and Contributions Disclosures Act of 1977, which made certain contributions illegal, this has changed. For example, contributions of more than $10 000 to any single political party by an individual, group or company may result in a fine of up to $10 000. Québec, more stringent than other jurisdictions, even prohibits any contributions to parties or candidates by companies. Only electors may contribute. The purpose of such laws is to avoid the possibility that wealthy contributors to party campaigns might buy political favours in return. No one would suggest, however, that the laws are foolproof (see PARTY FINANCING).

PATRONAGE and nepotism are frequently, but not universally, condemned as corrupt. Patronage, the practice of hiring and promoting civil servants and other government officials on the basis of their party affiliation rather than merit or ability to do the job, is common in Canada. Patronage can become a major political issue, as it did during the 1984 federal election. During June and July 1984, outgoing PM Pierre Trudeau and incoming PM John Turner appointed at least 225 people, the vast majority of whom were said to be Liberal Party supporters, to senior level government positions as senators, judges, ambassadors, commission members, crown corporation executives and civil servants. Some of these appointments created a great deal of public criticism as an abuse of public office, and at least one member of Trudeau's Cabinet publicly criticized Trudeau for ignoring competence in some of the appointments. Interestingly, Turner's Progressive Conservative opponent, Brian Mulroney, was also criticized for indicating that he too would engage in such activities if he were in a position to do so.

Nepotism refers to the hiring and promoting of relatives or friends who are not necessarily qualified. These terms are also applied to the letting of government contracts for the same reasons. Patronage has been defended as a method for ensuring the vitality of the Canadian party system by providing sufficient incentive to recruit prospective party members and even possible candidates for public office. For example, a defeated candidate may, if his party is victorious, be appointed to a government post as a reward for running, but it may be asked whether this is a proper use of public money. A second rationale for patronage is that unless new governments can replace civil servants and other government officials, the permanent administrative personnel may effectively block new programs. This rationale is more difficult to criticize. Critics do argue that patronage is inefficient because employees are not chosen on the basis of their ability to perform a task, and that it is unfair because it discriminates against those who do not support the "right party."

The debate over this issue has continued since the 1830s, the time of Jacksonian democracy in the US, when patronage became a popular political tool. In Canada, in the 1970s and 1980s, 2 successive Manitoba governments attacked each other with repeated allegations of patronage. The federal and all provincial governments have established PUBLIC SERVICE commissions designed to preclude the practice of patronage or nepotism, but they have not been completely effective because governing parties often consider government jobs the spoils of electoral wars and their followers often demand jobs as a just reward. In recent years, patronage has apparently declined for the lower-level civil service positions but has increased for the higher levels. Nevertheless, the Reform Party again raised the issue of patronage in the 1993 federal election.

Finally, pork-barrelling, the offer of a public-works project to a constituency in exchange for its electoral support, is frequently decried by journalists, academics and reform-minded politicians, but continues unabated. Opponents condemn it because rational planning and national or provincial priorities are overridden for local voter support, eg, a road is built in a constituency not because it is needed but as a reward for voting the "right" way. Others claim it is the duty of those who represent constituencies to look after their interests and that all parties dispense such rewards. Examples of pork-barrelling are rampant at almost every election and it is not likely to become illegal, since it would be extremely difficult to decide fairly which campaign promises were pork-barrelling and which were not.

Causes of Corruption

Political corruption, according to functional theories, arises in response to societal needs. For example, it has been argued that political machines practise certain forms of corruption in order to provide necessary social services or to provide a less impersonal form of government. Unfortunately, this does not explain why corruption is the only response or why it continues long after the need has evaporated. Another explanation is that corruption is a consequence of greed and the desire for power. Many forms of corruption provide new and illicit avenues to wealth for public officials willing to use them, an explanation frequently advanced to explain corruption in developing nations, where civil servants are comparatively much less well paid than in developed nations. The desire for power, on the other hand, explains why individuals and parties, some of whom are capable of much higher earnings outside government, are still willing to pursue public office through corrupt means.

The notion that power is the cause of corruption is frequently noted in political science literature. According to the theory of patron-client relations, corruption is an exchange mechanism which frequently reflects the unequal distribution of wealth and power in society; the relatively powerless can exchange votes or campaign work for something else. Other theories contend that corruption is a persistent but necessary feature of capitalist economics, but this does not account for the chronic corruption found in noncapitalist systems, although it could be argued that in these societies power is also unequally distributed.

The consequences of corruption are somewhat clearer and are most noticeable perhaps in the increase in public cynicism and distrust of government and politicians, which may lead to alienation from the political system and a resulting decline in the legitimacy of the state. Corruption creates a major problem for public policy, because public money is being diverted to satisfy the needs of a few. It also affects a nation's image abroad. Canadian governments, relatively virtuous by international standards, are still troubled by corruption despite new legislation and regulations which attempt to control it. Ultimately it is up to the public, however, to demand honest and less self-serving government officials.

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