The duties and functions of the Senate Ethics Officer are set out under the Ethics and Conflict of Interest Code for Senators, which was adopted for three purposes:
(i) to maintain and enhance public confidence and trust in the integrity of Senators and the Senate;
(ii) to provide for greater certainty and guidance for Senators when dealing with issues that may present foreseeable real or apparent conflicts of interest; and
(iii) to establish clear standards and a transparent system by which questions relating to proper conduct may be addressed by an independent, non-partisan adviser.
In general, the Senate Ethics Officer is responsible for administering, interpreting, and applying the Code. Section 41 of the Code affirms the independence of the Senate Ethics Officer, as well as his responsibility alone to provide advice to individual senators regarding the application and interpretation of the Code in any given circumstance.
More particularly, the Senate Ethics Officer’s mandate involves six major areas: A. opinions and advice; B. the disclosure process; C. inquiries; D. the public registry; E. outreach and external activities; and F. the annual report.
A. Opinions and Advice
Although senators are ultimately responsible for arranging their affairs in such a way as to prevent foreseeable real or apparent conflicts of interest, they are encouraged to consult with the office before embarking on a course of action, particularly where the facts in question are complex and the relevant provisions of the Code require interpretation and analysis. Indeed, providing opinions and advice to senators regarding their obligations under the Code is the main function of the Senate Ethics Officer.
Opinions and advice may be of a formal nature, in writing, or of a more informal nature, through telephone conversations, meetings and e-mail exchanges.
The Code requires that these opinions and advice be kept confidential but they may be made public by the senator to whom they were given, or by the Senate Ethics Officer with the senator’s written consent.
The importance of this advisory function should not be underestimated. Indeed, it is the most important part of the mandate of the Senate Ethics Officer since it helps to prevent conflicts of interest and avoids having to deal with them once they have already arisen. The approach is preventative, not punitive. Preventing conflicts from arising is always preferable to conducting formal inquiries and investigations. This approach is also more cost-efficient.
B. The Disclosure Process
The disclosure process is at the heart of the rules on conflict of interest for senators. The process is aimed at fostering transparency, accountability, and confidence in the Senate.
All senators must file annual confidential disclosure statements with the Senate Ethics Officer setting out their outside activities, their sources of income, assets, liabilities, and government contracts, pursuant to sections 27 and 28 of the Conflict of Interest Code for Senators.
In addition, senators have an ongoing obligation throughout the year to report any material changes to their confidential disclosure statements (subsection 28(6)), as well as any gifts or other benefits they receive that are provided as a matter of courtesy, protocol or that are within the customary standards of hospitality that normally accompany a senator’s position and that exceed $500 (subsections 17(2) and (3)). Any sponsored travel, i.e., travel that arises from or relates to a senator’s position, must also be reported throughout the year if the costs of travel exceed $500 in value and the travel does not fall within an exception under subsection 18(1) of the Code. Declarations of private interests must also be disclosed.
The Senate Ethics Officer works with senators in assisting them to prepare these statements and disclosure forms, and by providing advice where necessary respecting possible conflicts of interest and recommendations for complying with the Code. This involves written correspondence, as well as face to face meetings, with individual senators.
A public summary is then prepared annually for each senator by the Senate Ethics Officer pursuant to section 31 of the Code, based on the information provided in the confidential disclosure statements and any other additional information provided through the disclosure process. The information is then placed in the Public Registry and, under subsection 33(1), must be made available for public inspection at the Senate Ethics Office; as well, pursuant to subsection 33(3), the information must be available online on the Office website. Finally, senators are advised in writing that they are in compliance with the Code and each is provided with a copy of his or her public disclosure summary.
One of the functions of the Senate Ethics Officer involves conducting inquiries to determine whether a senator has complied with his or her obligations under the Code.
Under section 48 of the Code, following a preliminary review, an inquiry can be commenced (i) where the Senate Ethics Officer determines that an inquiry is warranted after conducting the preliminary review; or (ii) where the Senator who was the subject of preliminary review requests that the Senate Ethics Officer conduct the inquiry because the Senate Ethics Officer has made a finding that an obligation under the Code may have been breached, but he or she has also determined that an inquiry is not warranted.
However, the Senate Ethics Officer encourages senators to avail themselves of the advisory services of the office in order to prevent conflicts. This approach recognizes that it is not in the public interest to carry out costly and time-consuming inquiries if they can be avoided.
D. The Public Registry
The Senate Ethics Officer is responsible for the maintenance of the Public Registry, an important part of any modern conflict of interest regime. The Registry contains all senators’ public disclosure files, including their public disclosure summaries, their statements of material changes, statements of gifts or other benefits, statements of sponsored travel, and any declarations of private interests. Section 31 of the Code sets out a comprehensive list of information required to be made publicly available under section 33. This public disclosure promotes integrity and enhances accountability and transparency in the Senate.
The Registry is available for public consultation during regular office hours at the Senate Ethics Office located at the following address: 90 Sparks Street, room 526, Ottawa, Ontario, K1P 5B4 and the online Registry can be consulted on our website under Public Registry.
E. Outreach and External Activities
The Senate Ethics Office maintains close working relations with provincial and territorial Ethics Offices across the country, as well as with the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner who is responsible for the Conflict of Interest Act and the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons. A group of ethics commissioners and ethics officers that provide advice to legislators and/or senior public officials meet once a year to draw on their collective experiences and efforts to improve ethical practices in government.
The Senate Ethics Office also strives to foster strong ties with professionals, academics, practitioners and organizations that are involved in ethics and conflict of interest. Remaining connected to this very specialized community helps develop long-term relationships with people and organizations who have experience and knowledge in this growing area of interest. These exchanges provide opportunities to share policies, best practices, ideas, and also to better understand the similarities and differences between the Senate system of conflict of interest and those in other jurisdictions, both in Canada and abroad.
The Senate Ethics Office also keeps abreast of new developments in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Australia. The Office encourages Canadians and international delegations who are interested in learning about the Office’s programs and activities to contact us as they develop or seek to improve their own ethics and conflict of interest regimes.
F. The Annual Report
Under section 20.7 of the Parliament of Canada Act, the Senate Ethics Officer is required, within three months after the end of each fiscal year, to submit a report of his activities to the Speaker of the Senate, who must table the report in the Senate. Through his annual report, the Senate Ethics Officer is accountable to the Senate and to the public.
All annual reports of the Senate Ethics Office are available on our website. They provide additional details and further information concerning the mandate of the Senate Ethics Officer and the work of the office in general
II. The Senate Ethics Officer’s Budget
The Senate Ethics Officer operates the office independently of the Senate and the Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration (subsections 20.4(6) to (8) of the Parliament of Canada Act). The Officer has the responsibility for preparing the estimate of the sums required to pay the charges and expenses of the office. This estimate is separate from the estimates of the Senate. The Speaker of the Senate, after considering the estimate, submits it to the President of the Treasury Board who then lays it before the House of Commons with the estimates of the government for the fiscal year. The Senate only reviews the Officer’s proposed budget as part of the annual review of the Main Estimates. These aspects of the Parliament of Canada Act confer on the Officer a status of independence and autonomy and they provide an effective shield against improper or inappropriate influence.
III. The Standing Committee on Conflict of Interest for Senators
Although the Senate Ethics Office was established as an independent body from the Senate, the Senate Ethics Officer carries out his duties and responsibilities under the general direction of the Standing Committee on Conflict of Interest for Senators (subsection 20.5(3) of the Parliament of Canada Act). The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner also operates under the general direction of a committee of the House of Commons in respect of her responsibilities over members of the House of Commons (subsection 86(3) of the Parliament of Canada Act).
While the Senate Ethics Officer is broadly accountable to the Committee and to the Senate, he is expected to act independently in the discharge of his responsibilities, including advising individual senators on their obligations under the Code, considering and investigating complaints, and submitting inquiry reports to the Committee for the Senate’s final determination. As noted earlier, section 41 of the Code affirms the independence of the Senate Ethics Officer, as well as his responsibility alone to provide advice to individual senators regarding the application and interpretation of the Code in any given circumstance.
On the other hand, the Committee is responsible to the Senate for the overall effectiveness of the system. It has an important role to play with respect to any inquiries and investigations that may be undertaken under the Code. Through the Committee, the Senate retains its right to discipline its own members by making final determinations regarding sanctions or penalties where senators have violated the provisions of the Code. The Committee is also responsible for undertaking periodic reviews of, and recommending to the Senate changes to the Code. The Code has been revised in May 2008, again in May 2012, in April 2014 and also in June 2014.
IV. The Appointment of the Senate Ethics Officer
The Senate Ethics Officer is an independent Officer of the Senate, appointed pursuant to section 20.1 of the Parliament of Canada Act. The appointment is made by the Governor in Council after consultation with the leader of every recognized party in the Senate and after approval of the appointment by resolution of the Senate.
This method of appointment ensures that the incumbent has the broadest support of the Senate irrespective of party affiliation. Pursuant to subsection 20.2(1) of the Act, he or she is appointed for a renewable term of seven years and may be removed from office, only for cause, by the Governor in Council on address of the Senate. The Senate Ethics Officer has the rank of a deputy head of the Government of Canada and has the control and management of his office (subsections 20.4(1) to (5)).
V. Our Vision, Mission and Values
The Senate Ethics Office is committed to carrying out its mandate in a manner that respects certain core values, which we believe is a key to success.
Our vision is that, through our work, senators will be well-supported in fulfilling their responsibilities under the Ethics and Conflict of Interest Code for Senators in order to maintain and enhance public confidence and trust in the integrity of each senator and in the Senate.
The Office of the Senate Ethics Officer administers, interprets and applies the Code and provides sound, timely and independent advice to senators regarding their obligations under the Code in a manner that is non-partisan, responsive and effective.
Our Core Values
Both as individuals and as an organization, we are committed to the values of integrity, excellence, respect for people, teamwork and quality of life as we carry out our mission and work to achieve our vision. We strive to uphold these shared values in our daily actions and they guide how we serve senators, how we work together, and generally how we do business.