The Liberals were mired in the 2004 sponsorship scandal; the Conservatives were found guilty of contempt of Parliament last month.
When it comes to ethics, virtually no government has a clean slate, yet experts agree it’s an indispensable pillar of democracy.
“The people, i.e. the voters, are the ones who really have the right and responsibility to govern and that, even in a representative democracy like Canada, means the people need to be provided with the information on which to make informed decisions on issues that arise,” said Robert Holmes, president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
Holmes said transparency is vital to upholding democracy – without it, voters lose confidence and trust in their government.
The polls reflect a decline in approval ratings and come next election, a new government could find itself ruling the house.
“Obviously, if there is a sequence of incidents that are either what people say and constantly change their minds on, or don’t carry through with the ability of the public to put credence (into them) … (that trust) is eroded,” Holmes said.
“I think we’ve seen examples throughout history that it’s not like a lightswitch that’s not ever on or off.”
Those examples are former U.S. president Bill Clinton and former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. The decisions they made weren’t always popular, but they could run a country well, Holmes said.
Dermod Travis, spokesperson for Integrity B.C., a newly created, Victoria-based online political-promises watchdog site, said ethics are important because government is responsible for voters’ tax dollars.
“They’re spending our money and they’re also asking for our confidence,” Travis said. “When someone votes for a party or a candidate, there’s a bond that’s created and it’s a bond that’s (often) been bent and broken.”
He said tracking a politician’s kept and broken promises is a measurement of his or her ethics. Travis added voters are becoming increasingly aware of those promises and are taking them into account when they head to the polls.
“Don’t take voters for granted – they’re a lot smarter than you think,” Travis said. “Be upfront with them, be straightforward with them and let them weigh in on the issues that you, too, think are important.”
Holmes said during election campaigning, politicians like to take shots at each other’s ethics, ironically.
“It’s a complicated thing because, although partisans on both sides of any particular debate will use ethics and trust issues as a means to attack their opponent as we’ve seen recently … the poor people in the middle (the voters) who sort out who wins at the end have to decide what is more (disdainful).”
Similar to Integrity B.C.’s mandate, Holmes said voters must keep politicians in check when it comes to their ethics.
“We have to be vigilant that we have to keep all these politicians on a leash and once in a while give it a tug to keep them in line.”
How much should ethics weigh on the minds of voters when they head to the polls on May 2? We asked candidates from the Victoria and Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca ridings.
“Ethics in government is crucially important because we need to trust the representatives we elect to act in our best interests,” said Denise Savoie (NDP-Victoria).
“As MP, I’ve strived to represent and promote our community’s priorities as I hear them, and I believe my record shows that I’ve stayed true to that goal.”
Troy DeSouza (Conservative-Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca) said ethics are about being honest.
“As a father of two young girls, the value of honesty and trust are daily lessons in our home.
“Canadians want and deserve a government they can trust and if elected, that is the kind of Member of Parliament I will be for Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca.”
Randall Garrison (NDP-Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca) said Jack Layton is well-trusted by the public, according to polls.
“I think trust will be at the top of (voters’) minds, and they’ll take a good look at the leaders of all the parties and they’ll look at the one all the opinion polls say has
trust from the public, and that’s Jack Layton.”
For Patrick Hunt (Conservative-Victoria) ethics and transparency were a key part of the platform that won him an MLA’s seat in Nova Scotia from 1978 to 1981.
“What we need is a majority government so the Opposition can’t make those claims (of unethical conduct) if they aren’t proven. I can make the personal commitment that we’ll be a government for the benefit of the people.”