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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


The phrases "code of conduct" and "code of ethics" are often used loosely and interchangeably, leading to confusion about their aims and methods and how their success should be measured. For purposes of clarity and consistency, the phrase "code of conduct" is used here to describe a document with a basis in law that seeks to proscribe, deter and detect certain types of behaviour.

Codes of conduct can be either long, detailed prohibitions against certain actions, or they can be shorter, less prescriptive documents that set forth general principles. Usually, such documents establish procedures for lodging complaints and provide for either legal or political remedies for proven cases of violations.

Examples of codes of conduct are the conflict-of-interest rules that are used in many jurisdictions to regulate the behaviour of legislators, Cabinet ministers and other public office-holders to ensure that there are neither real nor perceived conflicts of interest that arise in the performance of their official duties caused by the placement of private interest, particularly those of a financial nature, ahead of their obligation to serve the public interest.

There is considerable variety in the types of provisions and methods of enforcement found in such codes. In contrast to codes of conduct, codes of ethics tend to be less legalistic, prescriptive and punitive. They go beyond legal requirements to invoke a sense of responsibility and commitment to doing the right thing. They have become popular in many organizational settings as inspirational and aspirational statements meant to unify, guide and improve the ethical standards of decision-making in complicated factual and ethical circumstances. The broad, more philosophical content of codes of ethics is meant to cover the grey areas of behaviour not captured by the more detailed, legalistic prohibitions contained in codes of conduct.

In the context of creating the conditions for “free and fair” elections, it might be argued that a code of conduct would deal more with the “free” dimension and a code of ethics would deal more with the “fair” dimension. In practice, of course, this dichotomy is not so simple or straightforward.

A code of ethics for parties and other political participants would focus on the values, principles and norms that should guide the behaviour of parties, leaders, elected representatives, candidates, staff and volunteers in the performance of their roles and duties while in office and during their election campaigns to gain such office.

A code of ethics would face the difficult challenge of distinguishing the ethical expectations and obligations that arise when people seek or hold public office from the morality and ethics followed in their private lives. Explaining and maintaining this distinction between the ethics of office-seeking and office-holding and personal ethics is difficult in the rough and tumble world of politics, where there are often competing values, interests, viewpoints, uncertain evidence and contradictory claims in play.

Studies of the adoption of ethics codes in non-political contexts suggest that three cultural conditions must exist: 1) shared attitudes and values, 2) agreement on the nature of the ethical problems that exist and 3) agreement on what needs to be done to eliminate or mitigate those problems. In political life, these cultural conditions are difficult to implant and to cultivate in a deliberate manner in a national political culture, which is fragmented and partisan.

These difficulties explain in part why there are far fewer working codes of ethics than codes of conduct in the political domain. Most codes of ethics have been adopted in newer democracies, where corruption is more endemic in the political culture than in more mature democracies like Canada.

The above discussion leads to the following questions:

  • Should the framework for responsible political conduct be set through a code of conduct with a legal basis and restricted to the most obvious violations of legal norms?
  • Should the document be a code of ethics that focuses less on wrongdoing and more on the promotion of ethical awareness, the competency to reason ethically and the promotion of right-doing?
  • Should the document be a combined code of conduct, setting forth the legal rules in plain language, along with a more aspirational statement of the foundational values and principles upon which those laws rest?