A60. No, there is no overall Code of Ethics for MLAs. But there is a Code of Conduct for cabinet ministers, and there is a law that deals with conflicts of interest, and there are rules of order in the legislature itself.
Before we discuss an MLA’s ethical obligations, there are two basic things it’s important to understand about an MLA’s job:
- MLAs are “office-holders”, not employees. They don’t have a boss. There is no employer or supervisor to tell them what to do, or for a citizen to complain to if the citizen doesn’t like what the MLA is doing.
- There is no job description for an MLA. The job is whatever they make of it. Different MLAs will take different approaches. A particular MLA’s approach depends on their personality, interests, aptitude, and experience.
Now let’s look at the rules that do exist.
In the legislature
While the legislature is sitting, there are rules of order. These rules apply only in the legislative chamber itself. The purpose of the rules is to ensure that the business of the House is done efficiently. Some of the rules are written down, but many are not. The unwritten rules are based on what has happened before in the Nova Scotia legislature, the House of Commons in Ottawa, or the House of Commons in London.
The rules of order are enforced by the Speaker. Even so, anyone who watches the legislature will know that MLAs often behave badly. If there is misbehaviour, the Speaker may ask a member (or all members) to behave; then the Speaker may admonish an individual member; and if the bad behaviour continues, then the Speaker may order a misbehaving MLA to leave the House for the remainder of the day. None of these punishments is very serious, which may explain why the behaviour of our MLAs continues to be bad. If their pay was docked, they would smarten up pretty fast; but that doesn’t happen. Maybe it should.
There is also a House of Assembly Policy on the Prevention and Resolution of Harassment in the Workplace. It came into effect on May 20, 2016, and deals with respectful communication and behaviour. It applies to relations between MLAs, their staff, and volunteers working in MLA offices. It does not apply to relations between MLAs and citizens.
Conflict of interest law (all MLAs)
There is a law called the Conflict of Interest Act that imposes certain rules on all MLAs. It’s not a complete Code of Ethics, but they are ethical rules.
The Conflict of Interest Act requires all MLAs to disclose the financial interests of themselves, their spouse, and their dependent children. The MLA’s disclosure reports are filed annually and are public.
The purpose of this disclosure is to prevent an MLA from acting on matters in which they have a direct personal interest. Section 12 of the Conflict of Interest Act says: “A member shall not make or participate in making a decision in the member’s capacity as a member if the member knows or ought reasonably to know that in the making of the decision there is the opportunity to further, directly or indirectly, a private interest of the member or the member’s family.”
The law also prohibits MLAs from accepting gifts or personal benefits in connection with their duties as MLA.
Any complaint under the Conflict of Interest Act may be sent to an official known as the Conflict of Interest Commissioner. The commissioner is currently Merlin Nunn, a retired judge of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.
Code of conduct (ministers only)
The Conflict of Interest Act also includes, in sections 18 and 19, a Code of Conduct for ministers. Again, it’s not a complete Code of Ethics, but they are ethical rules.
Apart from avoiding conflicts of interest, ministers are required to “be truthful and forthright and not deceive or knowingly mislead the House of Assembly or the public, or permit or encourage agents of the Government of the Province to deceive or mislead the House of Assembly or the public.”
That is probably the strongest ethical rule in the law, but the words were added only in 2010, and they haven’t really been tested yet.
Relations with citizens
The rules of order and the Conflict of Interest Act do not provide any guidance to MLAs about how to treat citizens, nor do they provide any guidance to citizens about what they have a right to expect from their MLAs.
In fact there are no rules, at all, governing relations between MLAs and citizens. That is important to understand—an MLA is under no obligation to meet with anyone, or talk to anyone, or be polite to anyone. They can do what they want—within the limits of the law that everyone in our society has to follow—and the only punishment is at the ballot box.
Now obviously MLAs want their constituents to like them. An MLA who angers many people is not likely to be re-elected. That, more than anything else, is what keeps MLAs behaving properly.