Lethbridge Herald, The (Newspaper) - October 29, 1974, Lethbridge, Alberta
TuMday, October 29, 1974 THE LETHBRIDQE HERALD Restoring confidence in government By Anthony Westell, Toronto Star commentator OTTAWA "Cynicism about representative in- stitutions is characteristic of our said government House leader Mitchell Sharp in a recent speech about reform of the. Commons. He is probably right and that .is worrying, for when people lose confidence in the integrity of democratic in- stitutions, they are in danger .of losing democracy itself. One of the reasons people are cynical is that they have been persuaded they are being denied their -'right to know" that is, they believe the government is hiding a great many secrets. It is no answer to say that the government is entitled to some degree of privacy. Nor is it satisfying, although true, to explain that most of what the government knows is not worth knowing, or at least of very limited public interest. If we hope to retore con- fidence, some way must be found to lower the barriers of secrecy. It is encouraging therefore to note that Sharp is proposing to make a small start by con- ducting negotiations with the .opposition for reform of the Commons in public, instead of in the privacy of a closed com- mittee which has normally been the custom. The public should have a better chance to weigh the 'arguments for greater ef- ficiency in processing legisla- tion against the case for lengthy debate and more detailed scrutiny of ad- ministration. There should be less opportunity to talk cynically about the govern- ment trampling on democracy or the opposition frustrating the public will. But'this is only a beginning. The committee on the procedure should take up the whole question of how to make the government more respon- sive to demands for infor- mation. If it is argued that this is not a matter that can be dealt with by amending the rules of the Commons, there is in now, in fact, a rule which is suppos- ed to govern the issue. Any MF can put upon the order paper of the House a "motion for the production of papers" calling on the govern- ment to make available a specified document. The government can then consent and table the document or refuse and give its reasons. The MP can accept the reasons given and withdraw his motion, or he can ask that his motion be transferred for' debate, which means that there should be a formal debate and, if necessary, a vote on whether the document has to be produced. Theoretically this is a sen- sible procedure, allowing the MP to state why the informa- tion should be public, the government to argue why it should be kept private, and the Commons to decide. It should work a great deal better than some broad "right to know" law which is bound to be riddl- ed with exceptions and loopholes, as has been dis- covered in the United States. The problem with the Com- mons procedure is that it doesn't work. MPs put down motions and sometimes get the information they seek or receive a satisfactory ex- planation of why it is secret. But when they are not satisfied and want a debate and a vote, they usually can't have them because there is no time in the House for such private members' business. The committee on Com- mons procedure could make a useful contribution by finding ways to make the motions for the production of papers effec- tive. Given the fact that the Com- mons itself is already overloaded, why not transfer motions to a special com- mittee with the status and independence of the com- mittee on public accounts? Or .perhaps disputed motions could be referred to the under-worked and less partisan senate for debate and decision. Another and even more dif- ficult problem is conflict of interest. Nothing encourages cynicism more than the idea that politicians are in public Ijfe to promote .their private .interests. There is no reason to believe that there is in Ottawa anything like the casual cor- ruption revealed by the Watergate affair in the United States. But there is occasional speculation that campaign contributions influence government decision, and" every now and again, some enterprising reporter exposes the fact that some senators are in effect spokesmen for sectors of industry. The government has been pondering how to remove suspicion and produced last year a green discussion paper on conflict of interest, outlin- ing the issue as it concerns MPs 'and suggesting draft legislation. Sharp recently an- nounced that this also is to be referred to a committee of the Commons for consideration. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, meanwhile, has an- nounced but been very slow to implement a scheme re- quiring members of the cabinet to place their investments in a trust, or dis- close them. The real difficulty, in my view, is that conflicts of interest, large and small, are unavoidable. Try as we may to write tough rules and regulations, we are proud to leave loopholes which are liable to encourage rather than reduce cynicism. A wealthy politician with large investments in private industry can be required to place his securities in the hands of a trustee who will manage them without his knowledge so that he does not know precisely where his money is. He cannot therefore use political power to favor a particular company in which he is an investor. But he may still be suspected of having a general interest in keeping profits up and taxes down. An MP elected with trade union support, has an interest in assisting the union, and a farmer MP has a-stake in farming legislation. On a more general and ob- viously insignificant level, MPs who have children have an interest in family allowances not. shared by bachelors, while aging MPs have a vested interest in public pension plans. To be fair, it should be noted also that conflicts are not restricted to politicians. The press as well as Parlia- ment has credibility problems arising in part from the fact .that it is a private institution claiming to speak for the interest. When a news- paper editorialist offers an opinion, the reader may wonder if he is speaking on behalf of the paper as a profit- making corporation or the paper as a defender of the public good. To return to Parliament, however, there is another problem about conflict of interest. Even if it were possi- ble to separate MPs entirely from private interest, would it be desirable? MPs'after all are supposed to represent the community and not to be detached, unwordly neuters. The member who speaks with the experience and passion of private interests in business or labor or the professions may be more useful than a full-time legislator who becomes essentially a bureaucrat. Instead of trying to write rules to forbid unavoidable conflicts, we should perhaps concentrate on disclosure of private interests so that when an MP speaks, there can be no suggestion that he is conceal- ing his real interest in the issue. By admitting that conflicts exist, and making them public instead of private, a routine part of political life, we could neutralize them to some ex- tent. But this would require restraint by rival politicians and the press. It is dreadfully easy to impugn motives by suggesting that wherever a conflict of interest exists there is a suspicion of corrup- tion. In fact, public cynicism about democratic institutions, probably arises more from irresponsible smears and un- proved suspicions than from actual wrongdoing by politicians in Canada. Brief book reviews "Divorced in by Joseph Epstein (Clarke, Irwin and Company Ltd., 318 Joseph Epstein knows ail about divorce. He knows the irrationality, the bitterness, the chaotic after-effects; but knowing didn't make it any easier nor did it keep his marriage intact. Not only is the author divorced, but he also has custody of his two sons, adding considerable depth to the problems a newly-single person, experiences. Whatever opinion one holds on the subject of divorce, this book will move readers as they realize that in spite of all the author has experienced leading up to, during and after the divorce, he is still biased towards the nuclear family. As the back cover suggests, God must love a good joke. JOANNE GROVER "Arts of the Eskimo: Prints" edited by Ernst Roch, texts by Patrick Furneaux and Leo Rosshandler (Signnm Press in Dollar for dollar, feature for feature, the Datsun B210 can still make go a long, long way. Check into Datsun's economical B210. The B210 has features that some other cars like to call extra cost options. Like 12-way fully reclining front bucket seats. Power assisted front disc brakes. White sidewall tires. Tinted glass. And rear window defogger. All included in the Datsun BZ10, 2-door Sedan's standard price of less than flr As well as great gas mileage. So it takes even less of your dollar to take you farther. Datsun B210.The car that can still make your dollar mean a lot At your Datsun dealers now. 'Datsun B210 (Model Suggested retail price FOB Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax warehouses. Local freight, licence, provincial tax, if applicable, extra. DATSUN DATSUN SAFETY WEEK. OCTOBER 28 TO NOVEMBER 2. BRING YOUR DATSUN INFORAFREE SAFETY CHECK.