04/09/2015 05:14 EDT | Updated 06/09/2015 05:59 EDT

The Duffy Trial Is a Reminder to Change Parliament's Culture of Blame


Every time I look at the news, I wonder which leader or politician will be trying to duck his or her accountability or blame someone else. Recently it was the Minister of Defence, blaming the department of National Defence for not providing him the correct advice about which other members of the coalition were using "smart" bombs against ISIL.

As the Mike Duffy trial begins, there is plenty of blame to go around. Who is to blame -- the Senate and its lack of rules, the Prime Minister, staff or any of the other players in the allegations of fraud and misuse of funds? Surely Mike Duffy played no part whatsoever in this mess. He is just the "victim." After all, what accountability can those using public money have to Canadians to manage it well? In the U.S. we see Republicans blaming the president even when they block his initiatives. Not uncommon occurrences.

Awhile ago I was speaking with an MP about one of his party's Senate appointments. Instead of acknowledging that the appointment of the individual in question was a mistake, he told me that the person who did the background check will never get another promotion.

What is much less frequent is leaders who will stand up and be accountable. The doctrine of ministerial accountability, embedded deeply in our parliamentary history, seems to be forgotten in many instances as ministers blame their officials for mistakes. Under the doctrine ministers are accountable to Parliament and the Prime Minister, not only for their actions but those of the officials in their department. By failing to accept their accountability, these ministers are basically saying they do not have the power to deal with the mistake or improper action, thus in effect reducing their own powers. While the doctrine does not apply directly to CEO's and Presidents of enterprises, we have the same expectations of these leaders.

Why do we have such a culture of blame? Is it the media's fault because it reports even little mistakes as if they are earth shattering? Certainly mistakes that are of little relevance can be screamed in headlines that can lead us to believe they really are serious. Is media exposure an excuse for a leader or politician to duck responsibility because the media limelight might hurt their careers or political chances? Often lawyers advise clients not to apologize because it may result in legal liability. Yet the opposite happens in many instances where a lack of apology creates anger, loss of confidence and a desire to take legal action.

Have ministers forgotten or never appreciated their accountabilities when they were sworn in? Or are we dealing with a much more widespread culture of blame? We have seen corporations such as BP look to other players to blame for the gulf oil spill and tragedy. There was plenty of blame for the demise of Nortel and very little accountability. Sometimes it seems to be everywhere. I regularly hear people blaming their parents for their current lot in life as if they had no choices about their own lives.

It is time to change this culture of blame. I challenge leaders to act more like Michael McCain, CEO of Maple Leaf Foods. When a listeria outbreak occurred in Maple Leaf's packaged lunchmeat in 2008, he resisted any temptation to blame others and took responsibility, working to make sure the problem was fixed and consumers could continue to have confidence in Maple Leaf Foods. Instead of harming him, he retained and gained credibility while taking the steps needed to protect his customers.

Everyone makes mistakes and ministers and officials are no exception. To encourage accountability all of us need to be prepared to accept mistakes and judge on how they are handled, not that they are made. A leader, by the very word, is someone who accepts responsibility for his or her actions and the actions of those who are accountable to him or her.

While it may be difficult, a leader has the power to deal with the situation instead of relegating it to some nameless or sometimes "named "official who seldom gets an opportunity to explain what happened. Having been a senior public servant, I am well aware of the blame culture that has evolved and how this erodes the confidence of the public and those who work to give ministers and leaders their best advice. I encourage ministers and all leaders to be accountable and to take responsibility for mistakes and errors to show that we can have confidence in their leadership. We desperately need more role models demonstrating accountable leadership.


Duffy's Downfall: A Chronology Of Events