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A Code of Ethics or Code of Conduct for Political Parties as a Potential Tool to Strengthen Electoral Democracy in Canada


Political parties are institutions of central importance to electoral democracy in Canada. The actions of political parties, their leaders, elected representatives, candidates, constituency associations, paid staff and volunteer members make a significant contribution to the vibrancy and integrity of Canadian democracy, not only in the electoral arena but more broadly within the wider parliamentary and political processes.

Political parties were once seen principally as private associations of like-minded people dedicated to achieving particular political aims. For the initial five or six decades of the country’s history, the assumption was that political parties would regulate their own behaviour, and, if they crossed ethical lines, the remedy resided in the electoral and wider political process.

Gradually during the 20th century, political parties also came to be seen as institutions serving public policy purposes related to democracy. The emergence of this second perception of political parties as public institutions resulted over time in the introduction of laws, regulations, guidelines and reporting and enforcement mechanisms intended to promote and enforce changing norms of responsible legal and ethical behaviour. The persistence of the earlier perception of parties as private bodies meant that the mechanisms designed to constrain and to shape certain of their activities, especially their campaign activities, were designed not to interfere unduly with their internal structures, decision-making and ongoing operations, particularly outside the campaign period. In summary, contemporary public policy strives to balance respect for the freedom and autonomy of parties as private associations with recognizing, supporting and directing to some extent their various roles in serving the democratic process.

Based on these considerations, the search for sound public policy frameworks to govern elections and the wider political process have relied upon a range of legal, quasi-legal, reporting, monitoring and compliance mechanisms. These regulatory measures reflect and reinforce important values, principles and ethical expectations, which provide the foundation for Canadian democracy.

Most of the time, most of the people involved with political parties are prepared to respect the legal rules and ethical norms within the political community. At the same time, partisan competition and the rewards of winning the political contest create incentives for parties and their supporters to seek political advantage by evading, bending or breaking the rules or engaging in activities that are troubling from an ethical standpoint.

The purpose of this discussion paper is to identify the advantages and disadvantages of adopting a code of conduct or code of ethics concerning the behaviour of political parties as collectivities and of the various types of people associated with them. Such a code would supplement and complement other existing rules, guidance and support for political parties.

The benefits of codes of conduct and ethics have long been recognized in such professions as medicine, law and accounting. With increasing frequency, codes have been adopted in the business field and in parts of government, such as the public service.

In the political domain, codes of conduct of various kinds, especially governing conflicts of interest, have been adopted to govern the behaviour of legislators across Canada and in many other countries. Some political parties in Canada and in other countries have on their own initiative adopted codes of conduct for their leaders, elected representatives, constituency associations, candidates, staff and volunteers. Manitoba is the only political system in Canada in which political parties have developed, with the support of Elections Manitoba, a consensus-based, self-regulating shared code of conduct.

Whether or not a code of conduct and ethics for political parties belongs in the field of campaign politics at the national level in Canada is open for discussion in this paper. There may be benefits from such a code, but there could also be unforeseen and unintended consequences and costs.

The question of whether or not there should be a code for national political parties can be debated in the abstract, but a final decision on the acceptability and the potential effectiveness of any code will also depend on answers to a host of questions about how it is adopted, what its contents will be and how it will be implemented and enforced. Rather than offering a model code, this paper sets forth some (but probably not all) of the issues related to the content and implementation of a code and offers some options for consideration.

The discussion proceeds as follows. Section 2 provides a brief background discussion of the social and political context in which the concept of a code is being debated. Codes in other political systems can be examined for possible directions, but care must be taken in drawing lessons about what will be acceptable and work best at the national level in Canada. Understanding the national, social and political context is critically important to deciding whether a code is needed, how it should be formulated, what provisions it should contain and how those provisions are best applied.

The political context is especially important to an assessment of the feasibility of achieving sufficient agreement to support the adoption and implementation of a code. All-party endorsement would add to the credibility of a code. Whether a code becomes a meaningful presence in national electoral politics will depend greatly on how political parties perceive its legitimacy, fairness and usefulness. Buy-in and commitment by parties, especially on the part of their leaders, will affect whether a code becomes more than words on paper.

Codes are increasingly used elsewhere in society, with some apparent success in shaping attitudes and behaviours, but it is not axiomatic that a code will work in the political world. Section 3 addresses the philosophical issues of whether a code of conduct and ethics is appropriate in the domain of organized political parties and competitive campaign activities conducted to win public office. The advantages and disadvantages, as well as benefits and costs, are identified in the abstract, with the recognition that the real-world impacts of a code will depend on how it is formulated and adopted, what provisions it contains and the procedures established for translating those provisions into practice.

Public awareness, understanding and confidence in the aims and means of a code are also important to its success because a vigilant public can exert pressure on political parties to exhibit the norms of responsible behaviour that they expect political actors to promote and respect.

Sections 4 through 8 examine a series of issues related to the formulation, content and enforcement of the code. It is these kinds of details that give expression to foundational principles of democracy like fair and free elections, appropriate legal and ethical standards of political behaviour, a subjective sense of responsibility on the part of all political actors and methods of accountability for political parties and their supporters who cross legal and ethical lines by their actions or inactions. Again, these sections identify options rather than offering detailed prescriptions.

Section 9 offers conclusions in the form of some brief general observations about the conditions required for the successful formulation and implementation of a code.