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February 14, 2001

Liberals defeat their own policy

Two Grit MPs join a united opposition in bid to beef up role of Ethics Counsellor

Joël-Denis Bellavance
National Post

Tom Hanson, The Canadian Press
Liberal MPs Ivan Grose and ...

Tom Hanson, The Canadian Press
...Paul Steckle vote yesterday against the government in support of an opposition motion to make the federal Ethics Counsellor report to Parliament not the prime minister. "On this one, I think the party was wrong," Grose said.

Ryan Remiorz, The Canadian Press
Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Québécois, accused the Liberals of cynicism for voting against their own program.

That this House adopt the following policy from Liberal Red Book One and call for its implementation by the government: A Liberal government will appoint an independent Ethics Counsellor to advise both public officials and lobbyists in the day-to-day application of the Code of Conduct for Public Officials. The Ethics Counsellor will be appointed after consultation with the leaders of all parties in the House of Commons and will report directly to Parliament.


OTTAWA - After two weeks of applying intense pressure on the issue of the Prime Minister's conduct in his riding, opposition MPs yesterday forced the Liberals to vote against their own Red Book promise to appoint an independent Ethics Counsellor.

The Liberals defeated by 145 to 122 a Canadian Alliance motion aimed at implementing the long-standing Liberal policy.

Two Liberal MPs -- Paul Steckle and Ivan Grose -- voted against the government, while four others -- Roger Gallaway, Clifford Lincoln, Brenda Chamberlain and Rose-Marie Ur -- abstained.

The Alliance motion, supported by all opposition parties, directly quoted from the 1993 Liberal Red Book on policy.

The government Ethics Counsellor is appointed by the Prime Minister and reports directly to him.

That became an issue after the counsellor, Howard Wilson, was called upon to decide whether Jean Chrétien had been in a conflict of interest when he phoned a federal bank on behalf of a constituent.

Mr. Chrétien is on a trade mission to China and did not vote on the motion.

The opposition parties accused the Liberals of being hypocritical by voting against their own promise.

Mr. Grose and Mr. Steckle, who were applauded by the opposition parties as they stood to register their support for the motion, said they did not fear reprisals because they had simply reiterated party policy.

"How can the party discipline me? ... They can't do anything to me ... I voted the way I thought. On this one, I think the party was wrong," Mr. Grose said after the vote.

Mr. Steckle added: "I really didn't oppose government policy. What I supported this evening has been a policy since 1993. So really I am not in conflict of what our party has said for the last seven years.

"I've done what I said I would do. I've lived to my commitment and I can go back to my constituents knowing that I have lived the promise that I would be true to my constituents."

Stephen Owen, the former B.C. ombudsman and provincial deputy attorney-general who last week voiced concerns about Mr. Wilson's apparent lack of independence, voted with the government and against the motion.

Stockwell Day, the Canadian Alliance leader, said: "I am not surprised, but I am disappointed. This was a promise in the Liberal Red Book, a promise that they took to the people of Canada. To me, it's a real blow to democracy."

Joe Clark, the Tory leader, said the Liberals missed a golden opportunity to reform Parliament.

"If Liberal MPs can't support the Liberal platform, that says a lot about their commitment. It is the height of hypocrisy for them to back away from it."

Gilles Duceppe, the Bloc Québécois leader, said: "They are voting against their program. This is unacceptable. But this is not the first time. Remember Mr. Chrétien's promise to scrap the GST. It's cynicism."

The Liberal government treated the motion as a vote of confidence and did not allow MPs to vote freely.

Mr. Wilson told the National Post this week that after Mr. Chrétien was elected in 1993, he and other government officials advised the Prime Minister to drop his campaign promise to create an ethics watchdog who would report to Parliament because it could "usurp the accountability of the Prime Minister."

Speaking before the vote last night, Alfonso Gagliano, the Minister of Public Works, suggested the Liberals made a mistake when they promised an independent Ethics Counsellor who would report directly to Parliament.

"We put it in the Red Book, but after we formed the government we got the explanation that it was not the proper way to do it. That's why he [the Ethics Counsellor] reports to the Prime Minister," he said.

In an interview yesterday, Mr. Owen said he wants to work within the government to broaden the mandate of the Ethics Counsellor.

"I didn't come here to, just in the first two weeks of my vast parliamentary experience, oppose the government. If I wanted to come here and oppose the government, I would have joined the Canadian Alliance," he said.

"The position is evolving and I would like to be able to share my experience in British Columbia to help it evolve further."

Paul Martin, the Minister of Finance, who co-authored the 1993 Liberal Red Book, said: "It never bothers me to vote with the government."

Paul DeVillers, the chairman of the Liberal caucus, said the government fulfilled its 1993 Red Book promise.

"What has been done in the area of accountability is in conformity with the spirit of everything that was in the Red Book. The Ethics Counsellor reports to the people of Canada through the media. All the reports are public."

When asked by reporters to say whether the Ethics Counsellor is independent, Mr. DeVillers refused to answer.

Roger Gallaway, an Ontario Liberal MP who has been pushing for parliamentary reform, criticized his own government for making the vote a motion of confidence.

"I don't see this as a matter of confidence vote. It's clearly preposterous to say that it is," he said.

He also rejected comments made by Herb Gray, the Deputy Prime Minister, who insisted the Canadian Alliance tabled the motion to embarrass the government.

"That's nonsense. Can people not have an opinion here that is perhaps five degrees different than the government?"

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