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Monday, October 27, 2008

neil wilkinson and ethics.

The appointment of Neil Wilkinson as Alberta's Ethics Commissioner has spurned some legitimate debate surrounding his known partisan connections to the governing PCs (which includes publicly listed donations to Ed Stelmach's and Jim Dinning's PC leadership campaigns as well as publicly endorsing a PC MLAs re-election campaign).

Much like the returning officer fiasco during the 2008 provincial election, the issue isn't whether Wilkinson is a competent manager (which I don't believe is in doubt), but whether his partisan affiliations give him the credibility to serve Albertans as Ethics Commissioner without bias.

Created in 1992, as an effort to restore public confidence in government, the Office of the Ethics Commissioner is mandated to be a watchdog of the Legislative branch, with the power to initiate investigations when appropriate. The very suggestion that the person holding this office could be biased de-legitimizes the credibility of the Office of the Ethics Commissioner, and will undoubtedly contribute to the already prevalent public cynicism towards government and those holding elected office.

If the Members of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta are truly concerned with restoring public confidence in government, they should appoint an Ethics Commissioner whose credentials are unbiased beyond repute.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

He probably had the most "unbiased credentials" they could find...

Ken Chapman said...

I don't think there will be any issues or concerns of bias by Neil Wilkinson serving in the role as Ethics Commissioner.

I know Neil and can attest that he is a man of quality character with the right temperament, experiences and capabilities to do this job very well.

The office is also going to have to deal with the new Lobbyist Registry functions too. I will no doubt be subject to his authority too.

I often take on files that are unpopular to the powers that be in the PC Party - the provincal political that I support. I often raise hackles in the government in some of the work I do. On policy difference and even on a political dimensions, that tension is fine and fair ball. But when it come to ethical issues as a lobbyist, it is a different story.

I have absolutely no hesitation about Wilkinson being politically influenced about such matters in any way whatsoever. It will not happen. If I am wrong, there are proper and effective ways to deal with it too.

In all cases Wilkinson is accountable to the Legislature and not a Ministry. He will not be directly subject to political influence - from any sources. He will be able to avoid indirect political influence as well should any politician be so foolish as to try.

I see this Ethics Commissioner appointment process much like judicial appointments. The candidates for the Bench are very often lawyers who have been politically active in their lives, professionally and personally.

But once they are on the Bench they always rise to the task and always set aside past political positions and proclivities. The service they provide is in the greater public interest and decisions are determined by facts and law and not any political bias.

I can see the reason for some to have a bit of anxiety over this appointment because it is made by politicians and about politicians.

If there are politicians who are expecting a favourable bias from Neil Wilkinson they are going to be seriously disappointed. He is up to the job and he will be effective in the role.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Dave. It's stuff like this that occasionally causes me to reconsider having your site as one of my favourites. People with political ties are frequently appointed as judges, at which time they sever their political affiliations and, presumably, perform their jobs professionally and competently.

Why would Mr. Wilkinson be any different? Don't you think you should judge his ability after he does the job for a while, rather than implying he can't possibly be independent because he's a Tory? Don't you think his personal reputation, which he has worked for so long to build, is important enough to him that he will put his best efforts into the job?

Dave, it's fair game to call him out if he turns out to be bad at the job, but this type of thing is just baseless character assassination. I expect it from Laurie Blakeman and Rachel Notley, but not from you.

daveberta said...

Ken: Thanks for the post. I'm glad that you have faith in Wilkinson, and I hope that you're right. But it is this comment that concerns me the most:

"I can see the reason for some to have a bit of anxiety over this appointment because it is made by politicians and about politicians."

It is publicly known that Wilkinson had made financial donations to two PC leadership candidates (including Premier Ed Stelmach) and endorsed a PC MLAs re-lection campaign. He is now being put into a position where he is responsible for initiating investigations into conflict of interest cases involving MLAs (as well as the Lobbyists Registry).

Wilkinson clearly owes his past position as Chair of Capital Health to past PC Health Ministers and will owe this appointment to the PC caucus in the Legislature.

It's not what someone in his position may do, but what they might not do, and investigations that they might not be initiated, that concerns me.

As I mentioned in the post, the Office of the Ethics Commissioner was created as part of an effort to restore public confidence in government, appointing someone with publicly known partisan connections (it would be just as inappropriate to appoint a known Liberal or ND) challenges the appearance of integrity and neutrality of the Office.

Party of One said...

Dave, I appreciate your blog, but the following statement just doesn't make sense to me...

"appointing someone with publicly known partisan connections (it would be just as inappropriate to appoint a known Liberal or ND) challenges the appearance of integrity and neutrality of the Office."

This is, after all, Alberta. I would be very surprised if there were people of competance who DIDN'T have Tory ties, or if not, were "known" Liberals or NDs. I'm willing to bet that if we elected dog-catchers in this province, THEY would have Tory ties, too.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating of it. I say wait until he's had a few decisions before calling for his head.

Wilkinson would be putting himself out of a pretty cushy job if his rulings and decisions were clearly biased, and would also jeopardize the whole Ethics Commissionar initiative; I doubt that he would want to be tied to that!

Your use of the word "appearance" is interesting, too! Are you suggesting that the "appearance" of integrity and neutrality is sufficient to restore confidance in government? I would suggest that demonstrated ACTUAL integrity and neutrality would do better. Again, the jury's out until actual decisions are made.

Finally...who would YOU pick?

Anonymous said...

Party of One: "The proof of the pudding is in the eating of it. I say wait until he's had a few decisions before calling for his head."

Ken Chapman: "I don't think there will be any issues or concerns of bias by Neil Wilkinson serving in the role as Ethics Commissioner."

Not relevant. This is about process, not an expected outcome. An Ethics Commissioner who has donated money to and publicly supported sitting members of the Legislative Assembly is prima facie not an appropriate choice for the position. It's not character assassination at all to criticize the appointment on these grounds.

It's the same as with the PC Party appointing returning officers--the issue isn't the conduct of these people, it's the process by which they were appointed. It doesn't matter whether Neil Wilkinson turns out to be the best ethics commissioner in the history of Alberta; this process is a disservice to Albertans and to democracies.

Art said...

the issue isn't whether Wilkinson is a competent manager (which I don't believe is in doubt), but whether his partisan affiliations give him the credibility to serve Albertans as Ethics Commissioner without bias.

That's not correct. Blakeman counted that as her main concern. The other MLA to speak up was Rachel Notley - who said there were others with much better credentials for the job, even putting aside the partisanship issue.

Ken - you may know the guy but you don't know who else was on the short list that the Tories ran away from.

I think these types of appointment should have to be made by consensus, to avoid this type of thing.

Jeff J. said...

I find it hypocritical that the same individuals who argue so vehemently for more political participation are the same people to stand up and criticize any time someone affiliated with a party is appointed to a Board, Commission or Legislative Assembly officer.

What is it you are after? To ensure no one joins a party just in case 20 years from now we might want to sit on a University Board? I'm disturbed by your logic here Dave, very disturbed.

I think this is a sad testament to our new media age, people's lives are no longer private, and it seems those who choose to serve the public in any fashion now have to deal with their entire life being up for debate. I dislike that.

Simon said...

Frankly the opposition should refuse to deal with the Ethics Commissioner. I can't recall: do MLAs personal financial details have to be filed with the Legislative Assembly Office? Or with the Ethics Commissioner? If the former, then there's no problem there. But if it's the latter, they should refuse to file.

Anonymous said...

Simon, that's brilliant, but I can do one better, maybe MLA's who are upset with the decision can refuse to run for office and be MLA's? Just like the rest of us, if you don't like your job, quit. Oh, wait a sec, common sense kinda ruins the fun for those who pout when they don't get their way....