Commissioner’s Opening Remarks – Public-Sector Ethics Conference, September 30, 2016

Good morning everyone.

It’s great to see you all again.

Welcome to Day 2 of our inaugural Building Trust in Government: Public Sector Ethics Conference!

I would like begin by acknowledging that the land we are currently on is part of the traditional territory of several Indigenous nations. In the past, this land was a sacred gathering place for many Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island.

I hope last night’s dinner and address from Justice Iacobucci prepared you for an engaging discussion about public sector ethics today.

Welcome to the University of Toronto’s impressive new Jackman Law Building. Many generous donors contributed to help make this stunning, state-of the-art building possible.  Chief among them was The Hon. Hal Jackman.  Mr. Jackman made the largest donation in the history of the Faculty of Law and the building has been named in his honour.  I am pleased to say that Mr. Jackman joins us here today.

Walking around this building brings back memories of my own first days at U of T law school in 1961.

U of T was opening a brand new law school building back then too!

In fact, construction crews were putting the final touches on it when we began our classes in the fall of 1961 – so those first few weeks were a bit noisier and messier than usual!

The building that was brand new in 1961 is now gone to make room for this new building.

Today’s students are fortunate indeed to be stepping through the doors of this beautiful, new building.

Congratulations to U of T on this remarkable new facility. And thank you for agreeing to host our event.

This conference has been in the works for some time and it’s been on my wish list of things to do for an even longer time!

I’ve been Ontario’s Conflict of Interest Commissioner since 2007 and during that time, I’ve had an opportunity to speak with many people who are involved in some way in public sector ethics.

One of the things that strikes me is that although we do similar work, we have very little contact with each other and we often work in silos.

I think there’s been a real missed opportunity there – an opportunity to talk about our experiences, to share lessons learned and to connect the dots on potential solutions to the common challenges that we face.

This conference provides a forum and an opportunity to do just that.

If we’re successful, our hope is that we can build on that success by making this conference a regular event.

Our intention is to produce a conference summary which will be shared with you in due course.   It will capture the knowledge and insights of our speakers and each of our panels.  We hope it will serve as a useful resource for you in the future.

In addition, with the assistance of IPAC and our advisory committee, our intention is to produce a publication of academic papers that will delve more deeply into some of the public sector ethics themes that we discuss today. That publication will be edited by Professor Anita Anand and Dean Lorne Sossin and it will be published in a special edition of IPAC’s Canadian Public Administration journal.

To begin our conference today, I’d like to share a quote that appears on our conference poster, which is relevant to our discussion. It is from President John F. Kennedy:

The basis of effective government is public confidence, and that confidence is endangered when ethical standards falter or appear to falter.

Canada is very fortunate.

We have a well-deserved reputation world-wide for our public institutions and our public servants.

But this is not something we should ever take for granted.

It’s something that we must vigilantly protect and continue to build on.

The public profile of public sector ethics tends to rise and fall and right now it seems to be on the rise.

One can hardly pick up a newspaper anywhere in the world these days without seeing a story about some public sector ethics issue.

The recent Harperman and Taman affairs, the issues with the Senate of Canada, and the cash-for-access issue that has been raised across Canada and in this United States election cycle are good examples of how the ethical conduct of public servants is under a large microscope and constant scrutiny.

The cash-for-access issue is also a good example of our changing ethical standards. What may have been considered unremarkable, even acceptable, just a few short years ago, that is, exclusive, big-ticket fundraisers hosted or attended by government officials, is now considered questionable, even unacceptable.

This is progress. It tell us that our understanding of ethics is not stagnant, but changes and evolves over time, hopefully for the better.

I am not going into too much detail this morning because we are going to hear from some extremely well qualified people at this conference.

However, I do want to say that the intense media scrutiny of a few incidents should not be allowed to obscure the fact that in any complex society, ethical grey areas are inevitable. Conflicts of interest can sometimes occur quite innocently when experienced people wish to serve their communities in multiple ways.

Finding oneself in a conflict of interest is not necessarily a moral failing. However, failing to recognize conflicts and not taking appropriate steps to prevent them from becoming more serious, could well be.

Regarding the tools that we have at our disposal to address alleged ethical infractions, I am not the first observer to note that perhaps allegations of unethical conduct should not be the subject of criminal prosecution.

A courtroom may not be the best forum for determining the propriety of ethical issues that do not rise to the level of criminality. There needs to be other ways to deal with such matters.

It is often very difficult to show that an ethical infraction has crossed the line into criminality and the rush to bring in law enforcement agencies will not necessarily lead to better outcomes and it may even weaken public confidence when the effort falls short.

So what processes are in place in Canada to address questionable ethical conduct?

Well, the basic rules – do not accept gifts of more than nominal value, do not allow private interests to conflict with public duties, do not disclose confidential information, do not hire or supervise close relatives, do not give or seek preferential treatment – are age-old. In fact, these principles would not be out of place in the time of Aristotle or Plato.

These principles may be ageless but they can be expressed in different ways and the processes used to implement and oversee ethics rules vary considerably.

For public servants, Ontario has a decentralized model where deputy ministers and chairs or CEOs of public bodies serve as the ethics executives for the employees of their respective organizations.

In other provinces, public service ethics is usually the responsibility of the central agency or a human resource division. Some municipalities have integrity officers and some do not and each of them operate in a variety of frameworks and contexts. And of course federal and provincial elected officials and their staff usually fall under the oversight of an arms-length integrity commissioner who is a parliamentary or legislative officer.

So although there may be a similar, basic set of rules, there are many different oversight models, and an infinite variety of fact situations. This makes it even more important for those of us who work in this field to discuss our collective challenges and issues that we face at meetings and conferences like this.

Our hope is that our varied and expert panels will frame a productive and useful conversation.

Finally, I want to thank all of our panelists and our panel moderators: Mary Gusella, Anita Anand, Jennifer Ditchburn, and Peter Wallace. And of course it is a special honour to have as our luncheon speaker the Honourable Bob Rae.

I wish you an enjoyable and intellectually stimulating day, and I now call on the Deans of our two law schools in Toronto, Mr. Ed Iacobucci and Mr. Lorne Sossin to say a few words before we begin with our first panel..

Thank you.