In the Mike Duffy affair, Stephen Harper’s office failed to meet the high bar they had set with the Accountability Act.

It was completely by accident that Policy Options planned for a special feature on the Federal Accountability Act in the same week as the verdict in the Mike Duffy trial came down. On the surface, they might seem like two distinct issues. The FAA was a broad piece of legislation meant to cover everything from public service accountability (see Donald Savoie’s analysis), to lobbying (see Scott Thurlow), to the employment of political staff (see Michele Austin), and access to information (see Suzanne Legault) – not exactly criminal territory. The charges on which Senator Duffy was acquitted involved fraud and breach of trust around his Senate office, travel and living expenses, and the more explosive charge of bribery.

But Ontario Justice Charles Vaillancourt’s lengthy verdict  on Thursday carries more than few lessons on ethics and accountability. He uses the words mindboggling, shocking, unacceptable, deceit, manipulations, clandestine when referring to the PMO’s “plotting” around how to make the Duffy problem go away in 2013.

What really stands out for me is this paragraph:

It is interesting that no one ever suggested doing “the legal thing.” The message was always to “do the right thing.” I find that the “do the right thing” message had only one meaning. Senator Duffy was to do the politically right thing by admitting “his mistake” and repaying back the accrued living expenses.[citation]

On this, Vaillancourt and I are on the same page. I always wondered, in those years I spent reporting on the scandal for the Canadian Press, why more didn’t stop to say, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t be doing this.” The only person who appeared to speak up was a Senate staffer by the name of Christopher Montgomery, who tried in vain to stop the PMO from whitewashing a Senate committee report on Duffy.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper held fast to the line that only one person was to blame for the scandal, and that was his former chief of staff Nigel Wright. But no, Harper was to blame for the culture apparently fostered inside the PMO that was all about the political thing.

What does this have to do with the Federal Accountability Act, the main 2006 campaign promise that helped bring Harper to power in the first place? The scandal demonstrates the limits of legislation when one’s objective is to build an ethical workplace, a workplace with integrity. Building such a workplace means having good role models with rigid standards on what is acceptable. It means having seasoned staff members who have been around the block a few times – something that Accountability Act discouraged through its onerous post-employment rules (as Michele Austin explored in her piece). Those experienced people can help people see the larger picture – a few months’ worth of political embarrassment isn’t worth sacrificing probity.

The scandal demonstrates the limits of legislation when trying to build an ethical workplace.

Strangely enough, there seemed to be a sense that the Accountability Act was about restraining the nefarious actions of others, such as public servants and lobbyists, rather than anyone in the centre. I recall having a heated conversation on the Sparks Street mall in 2007 with one of Harper’s staffers. I had written articles about Harper spending taxpayer dollars on the services of a makeup artist, and the PMO was refusing to divulge any information about the arrangement. I raised the Accountability Act’s promise of transparency, and the staffer said something along the lines of “the Accountability Act is for criminals.” Essentially, it’s not meant to apply to us.

The Accountability Act did have an overall positive impact, and that was to set out a pervasive standard around conduct in Ottawa. When the Conservatives came to power, there was a discernible change in how expenses, fundraising and interaction with lobbyists were viewed. Most Conservative politicians took this very seriously, and there was a ripple effect across the political spectrum. Journalists picked up on this ethos too, and there was an uptick in “ethics” stories. The Liberals would do well to pay heed to the bar that the Conservatives set back in 2006 – there seems to be some slippage going on when it comes to the lines between lobbyists, fundraisers and government.

The Liberals would do well to pay heed to the ethics bar that the Conservatives set back in 2006.

There’s an obvious irony in this entire tale, that after setting the ethics bar so high with the Accountability Act, the same government failed to meet it in the Duffy case. They also failed to meet it on nonpoliticized government advertising and communications, and especially failed on access to information.

The silver lining in the whole Duffy saga is that it did create change. Just as the sponsorship scandal was the catalyst for the Accountability Act and a new focus on ethics in Ottawa, so too was the Duffy/Brazeau/Wallin/Harb debacle the spark for a rethinking of the Senate.

Hopefully, it will also act as a reminder for all who have the honour of serving in the Prime Minister’s Office that their actions should always be able to stand up to public scrutiny, whether there’s a law to cover them or not.

This article is part of The Federal Accountability Act: Ten Years Later special feature.