Ethics in Politics

On Jan 19, 2017, the LYAC held a discussion on Ethics in Politics, led by Ward 2 Youth Councilor Brandon Dickson. Politics is an institution that is fraught with ethical concerns, and the London Youth Advisory Council looked at their own ideal values in elected officials and the reviewed some recent ethical concerns at both local and national scales to break down their reactions.

Who Should Read This?

  • People considering running for any political office
  • People concerned with political scandals and honesty in their representatives

Values and Promises

Brandon opened the discussion with the question: What are values that we look for in our elected officials? Here are some of the group’s thoughts:

  • Transparency in what they are there to do
  • Honesty, and avoiding vapid statements
  • Leadership: having some kind of transformational influence in the community
  • Someone that will actually listen to everyone’s views

With these ideal values in mind, Brandon then asked the group, Are politicians held accountable? One councillor answered that for the most part yes, politicians are held accountable, particularly through the media. Another councillor noted that there are degrees of holding politicians accountable, and actually imposing consequences for wrongdoing does not happen as often. On the idea of consequences, Brandon asked: Should there be tangible consequences for ethical wrongdoing?

  • One member of the group argued that it is the nature of politics that politicians cannot be 100% honest, so it is difficult to say where there should be consequences.
  • Another member said that consequences should be determined on a case by case basis, noting that we can’t really impose consequences for breaking campaign promises, but we should for breaking ethical guidelines and laws.
  • Another councillor added that it would be nearly impossible to impose consequences for broken promises because of the sheer number of promises made during an election that are not followed up on.

Brandon asked the group whether we hold politicians to a higher moral standard. The responses indicated agreement, as councilors noted that it comes with the job, and that there is less forgiveness because politicians are making decisions on behalf of the common good. The common good versus personal or party political values brought up an interesting conflict. A member of the group posed the point that Donald Trump, for example, has his own set of values. When he is elected, should he carry out those values or should he veer his values toward the common good? After all, one insight that came from earlier in the meeting is that an important value in a politician is listening to everyone’s views.

There were long silences throughout the meeting as the councillors tackled these difficult ethical questions, but in particular this question was punctuated by an uncomfortable silence that two opposing thoughts eventually emerged from:

  • Elected officials should stay with the values they were elected on, because that’s why they were brought into power.
  • In some sense, an official should pivot towards the common good, because they have to serve everybody, not just the people who share their values.

This conflict between serving promises informed by specific values and serving the common good is what can lead to so many broken or unfulfilled promises from politicians. When a promise is broken for the common good, are there or should there be consequences for breaking the promise? It’s a murky question.

In the News

To break down some examples of questionable ethics in politics, the group brainstormed examples of recent political controversies. Here are just a few:

  • Hillary Clinton’s emails
  • Stephen Harper’s robocalls
  • Trudeau helicopter
  • The DNC blocking bernie
  • Russian hacking of the 2016 American election
  • Canada’s Saudi arms deal
  • Liberal sponsorship scandal

The group zeroed in on one scandal that was literally close to home. Mayor Matt Brown was recently involved in a scandal when he revealed that he had had an affair with the then Deputy Mayor Maureen Cassidy. In the case of the scandal with Matt Brown, what were the values that were broken?

  • One councillor commented that they never understood why people made a big deal out of the scandal, politicians aren’t perfect
  • Other councillors countered that the issue with Matt Brown’s scandal was matter of integrity, conflict of interest, and violation of public trust, particularly due to the fact that the other person involved in the affair is a city councillor and at the time was deputy mayor. After the Fontana 8 were swept out there was a promise of no more similar alliances, and the affair could have led to some alliances or favoritism.
  • One member of the group expressed disappointment that Maureen Cassidy’s career seemed to take the brunt of the affair as she gave up her position as deputy mayor.

Facilitator Matt Smith then turned the group to look at another recent scandal: Justin Trudeau’s ride in the Aga Khan’s helicopter. The Aga Khan is the Imam of the Nizari, a branch of Shia Islam. The Current Aga Khan began the Aga Khan Foundation, a foundation that does international development work and receives substantial funding from the Canadian government. The Aga Khan is also a personal friend of Justin Trudeau. Over the winter holidays in 2016, Trudeau spent the holidays at the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas, and he used the Aga Khan’s private helicopter to get to the island. The use of the helicopter is the issue, as it breaks 2 ethical guidelines – that the prime minister is not allowed to accept use of private transport unless cleared through the ethics commissioner, and that the head of government is accepting a gift (the use of the helicopter) from a federal lobbyist.

Matt asked the group: What is your gut reaction to this scandal? Here are some thoughts:

  • It’s definitely a conflict of interest, but if Trudeau always recuses himself on voting with Aga Khan Foundation related matters, it’s less of an issue
  • Technically he’s broken a law so there would be a $500 fine – but what is the cost in voter integrity?
  • The big mistake was not asking ethics if it was alright before going ahead.
  • What did they talk about on the island? Is this something we should be concerned about in terms of ethics?

Is this a scandal that bothers you?

  • One member of the group commented that objectively, it is an ethical issue, but personally, it’s minor compared to other scandals
  • While Trudeau technically broke a law, he and the Aga Khan were already friends, and so there is likely already some bias with the foundation regardless of the helicopter trip
  • Is the ride going to impact the Aga Khan foundation funding? No, but we shouldn’t set a precedent that we do not pursue conflict of interest cases.

Closing Observations

As the meeting was wrapping up, Matt asked the group to consider the two scandals discussed. Do we judge ethical issues on a different basis? Do we gauge personal scandals and policy scandals on different levels? One member noted that the judgement of scandals can be different based on conflict of interest, for example, a politician who is supportive of women’s rights as a priority having an affair is a big deal. Going back to Justin Trudeau, one member of the group observed that it would be politically devastating if he had an affair because of his emphasis on family.

Matt asked for some final thoughts, and with the earlier mention of Donald Trump some of the councillors brought up concerns about desensitization and lowering ethical standards with reference to the 2016 American election. This idea of lowering standards spurred a brief discussion about the media’s role in lowering standards and ethical concerns with issues such as fake news. Members of the group noted that news stations are politically centered around ideals and parties, picking and choosing which facts to highlight.  It was an interesting circle back to one of Brandon’s early questions about accountability, when some of the group had commented that the media does a good job of holding politicians accountable.

Big Questions:

  • What are the consequences for broken promises from our politicians?
  • How do we balance integrity to one’s values with the need to serve the common good?