03/17/2012 11:58 EDT | Updated 05/17/2012 05:12 EDT

The Integrity Commissioner Lacks ... Well, Integrity


Compared to the last Integrity Commissioner (who was also the first one for Canada), the present commissioner is Diogenes with a lamp, rooting out corruption in High Places.

Even so, he's pretty reluctant to nail -- or even identify -- bad guys.

Christiane Ouimet stepped down from the job in 2010 when Sheila Fraser was Auditor-General, and investigated her office and found that of 228 complaints filed in three years, only seven had been investigated, and no wrongdoing was ever found.

Ouimet left office with a $500,000 severance package -- a scandal of another sort.

The replacement Integrity Commissioner, Mario Dion, has finally found a case of wrongdoing -- but for some puzzling reason won't identify the culprit.

What we've been told is that a regional manager at Human Resources misused public funds to buy massage chairs disguised as office supplies, faked his expense accounts, took home flat screen TVs, was guilty of gross mismanagement, and of bullying his staff. Nice guy, eh?

He's since left the job, but whether he was fired or quit is unknown. There's no word on whether he also got a severance package akin to a lottery prize.

Apparently, the guy had been at the job for nine years, and although it was suspected that he was plundering the place, no one could catch him -- until Mario (Sherlock Holmes) Dion took aim at him.

One culprit nailed out of some 500 complaints in the five years since the Office Integrity Commissioner was created by Parliament in 2007, may not seem much of a purge of corruption. But it's a start.

Why is it that a regional manager as dishonest as this guy apparently was is not identified and charged? He clearly violated his mandate: "Our Office exists to strengthen public confidence in our public institutions and in the integrity of our public servants."

Clearly, keeping this guy's identity secret doesn't strengthen public confidence, nor is it likely to discourage others from abusing their power. As well, secrecy is unlikely to dissuade others from wrongdoing: "We are guided at all times by public interest and the principles of procedural fairness and natural justice."

In other words, an Integrity Office without teeth or determination to root out wrongdoing, may actually encourage violations, and dishonesty.

Just as Access to Information legislation can be misused to actually cloud information and protect the bureaucracy from public scrutiny, so can the Integrity Office might actually facilitate wrongdoing by protecting the identities of abusers of office.

Ethics are a curious thing. Politicians tend to radiate ethical propriety when they are in opposition, but the minute they get power they often become confused and cannot tell right from wrong when it applies to them, or their interests.

The most effective way to ensure an ethically correct government is to establish a tradition of proper behaviour. Canada has been fortunate over the decades in establishing a civil service that abides by ethical traditions. Hoping to guarantee this by establishing Integrity Tsars, privacy commissions, and ethical watchdogs is not as effective as having people in government for whom it is anathema to behave dishonourably.

That once was Canada's reputation, but has been eroded in recent years.

It's uncertain how best to reverse this trend, but naming and charging those who violate existing principles is a start -- and certainly not rewarding them with lavish severance packages is a good idea.