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The Shapiro Affair

A Commissioner Worthy of Contempt or a Culture Beneath Contempt?

Beryl P. Wajsman 10 March 2006

“The condition of all human ethics can be summed up in two sentences:
 We ought to. But we don't.”
~ Kurt Tucholsky, anti-Nazi German Philosopher


The audacity of Ethics Commissioner Bernard Shapiro’s plans to investigate Prime Minister Harper and International Trade Minister David Emerson is a display of blatant partisan hypocrisy by a public servant whose practices and purposes have been roundly condemned and whose own public proclamations have compromised the very integrity of his office. To make matters worse, for NDP leader Ed Broadbent, the “secular saint” of Canadian politics, to warn Mr. Harper that he may be in contempt of Parliament if he does not co-operate with Shapiro is eloquent testimony to the fact that this nation’s problem lies not with a Prime Minister who is in contempt but with a political culture that is beneath contempt.


The role of the Ethics Commissioner, named by the Prime Minister and responsible to Parliament, is to assure that no private privilege or preference is gained or given by public officials. Political decisions within the public domain are not within his purview. Since 1920 there have been over 100 cases in Canada of politicians crossing over to other parties. Indeed no less a man than Winston Churchill did it twice in Britain.


How is it that only in this one instance has Shapiro, who only months ago told a House of Commons Committee that he was “struggling” with the problem of connecting the “theory and practice” of holding our public officials accountable to ethical standards, finally made a decision. Has our “Bambi on ice”, as the National Post’s John Ivison so pithily wrote, suddenly found his legs?


Why is it that Mr. Broadbent, who twice demanded Shapiro’s resignation within the past eight months, now comes to his defence? Where were they when Stronach and Brison were crossing the floor for Minister’s posts? I’ll tell you where. Hiding in corners. Shapiro because he served at the pleasure of Paul Martin. And the NDP because they had made their deals with the ruling Liberals.


Shapiro, named ethics czar by the Liberals in 2004, has failed so spectacularly and so often that nothing comes as a surprise anymore. After demanding full financial disclosure from Ministers and MPs, he had to admit to the House that there was no excuse for his office’s nine month long delay in compiling and delivering the disclosure statements. After that embarrassing episode it still took another four months for the job to be finished.

He followed that performance by admitting to having misled the House of Commons in the Judy Sgro “Visagate” controversy by confessing that he had let the Liberal Minister see parts of his report on her before it was finished. Soon thereafter Shapiro initially declined, until public pressure mounted, to expand an inquiry into the controversial Grewal tapes matter to include then Prime Minister Martin and his Chief of Staff Tim Murphy as well as Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh.

Last fall Shapiro commented to a newspaper on one of his few ongoing investigations - not surprisingly that of a Conservative MP named Deepak Obhrai - which led to a $5 million lawsuit filed by Mr. Obhrai against Mr. Shapiro whom he charged with making him look guilty when he had not even received any word that an investigation was ongoing. The Commissioner’s discussion in the press of the Obhrai matter was seen as such a breach of trust that a parliamentary committee found Mr. Shapiro in contempt of the House of Commons.

During the recent election campaign Shapiro turned down a demand for an investigation into Liberal House Leader Tony Valeri’s real-estate speculations on the transparently ludicrous grounds that the Ethics Commissioner had no power to act between sittings of Parliament.

Shapiro has shown himself time and again to be either a bumbling foot-dragger or a totally manipulated pawn.

As then Conservative deputy leader Peter MacKay said, "Mr. Shapiro seems to be demonstrating daily that he's just as anemic as his predecessor. He's a wet noodle. And yes, I think he should resign. I think we should have someone there who's competent and independent.” Could that attack be the reason Shapiro is ready to investigate a Conservative Prime Minister while he protected a Liberal one?

It is time Mr. Shapiro, and those that may follow him, begin to recognize some harsh realities.


If Shapiro’s then boss, Paul Martin, was “mad as hell” about the sponsorship mess, there are a lot of Canadians out there just as mad about other abuses. There are just as many, just as mad, about an administration that did not hesitate to usurp rule of law and cast aside Charter protections of fundamental justice, just to deflect from its own conflicts of interest. Just as many, just as mad who finally punished a Liberal administration marked by obsequiesce subservience to the privileged that prejudiced its responsibility of obedient service to the people. Just as many, just as mad about an administration that did not hesitate to break rule and regulation, compromise law and legislation, and damage people and principle, in its transparent desperation to hold power for power’s sake. And just as many, just as mad about a government that had centralized executive authority to such an extreme that our elected representatives became impotent.


But Shapiro somehow found nothing to investigate in those Liberal ranks.


The Shapiro affair is a primordial example of the dangers that dozens of national leaders warned about in their open letter to the Prime Minister this week condemning many of the recommendations in Justice Gomery’s second report that suggested transferring  a good deal of executive authority into the hands of civil servants.


That letter stated in part that, “…the proposition that unelected public servants possess, and should assert, a constitutional identity independent of ministers…would represent a major departure from governments function…and we are opposed to increasing the powers of unelected officials at the expense of ministers. Any changes to existing governance systems should not reduce the powers and accountability of elected representatives.”


But the Shapiro affair also evidences something more sinister. A dangerous naiveté in Canada’s polity. A naiveté that has convinced many Canadians that constant oversight and mountainous regulations will somehow produce more accountable and transparent government. The reality is that they don’t and they never can. All they can do is produce a nation of snitches led by leaders pretending to reverse their own deflowering.


“Politics is war. Governing is trench warfare,” Churchill once said. You can’t run a country by committee and Pollyannish notions. Power cannot be wielded by children and virgins. It won’t get the food delivered, or the energy supplied, or the defence strengthened or the vulnerable shielded. Canadians better get used to the notion that nothing is ever going to be pristine. And that not every problem can be solved.

Rachel Marsden recently wrote that it’s time that we should, “Lose the appetite for gratuitous cannibalism. Personal or legal troubles should not reduce public men and women to a career selling pencils at Wal-Mart. Who gives a damn if someone has actually lived, taken risks, and perhaps made some mistakes along the way? This is politics–not church. So we should try worrying less about whether someone is as pure as the driven snow.”

If we fail to rid ourselves of our false pieties we will soon be living in a nation where we will have to weigh every action; every communication; every human contact; wondering what agents of the state might find out about them; how they would analyse them; judge them; tamper with them; and somehow use them to our detriment. In such a nation we will never be able to call ourselves truly free.


How we respond to this challenge will determine much of Canada’s fate. In crises such as these we remember the words of the anti-Nazi German philosopher Kurt Tucholsky who put it quite succinctly. “The condition of all human ethics can be summed up in two sentences: We ought to. But we don't.”



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