In Ottawa, loyalty faces a big test in 2014

January 2, 2014 at 12:18 pm  •  Posted in Penny's Pen by

The concept of loyalty is likely to be a much discussed issue in 2014. Kicked off dramatically in 2013 by Edward Snowden’s security and diplomatic leaks, the issue remains one of churn. Is Mr. Snowden a traitor to his country who deserves to be locked up in prison for his disloyalty? Or is he in fact , a hero – someone who found himself to be loyal to higher principles than that patriotism?

Similarly, the case of the chief of staff to Rob Ford, who found it necessary to tell the truth as he saw it to his boss, and was fired (or decided to walk) as a result. Speaking truth to power, as we all know, is difficult and dangerous. It requires an assuredness that what you do is the “right” thing, even in the face of threats, humiliation and gang ups. Surely, Senator Romeo Dallaire felt the whiplash of accusations of disloyalty when he dared to speak the truth as he saw it about Rwanda.

In the corporate world, a loyal executive or manager is known as team player. A whistleblower, such as Sherron Watkins of Enron fame was very offside with her colleagues. She blew the whistle on a corporate culture that was drastically out of control. “Eventually, High Risk/High Reward came to define the Enron lifestyle around the clock…on the edge, there were no rules to constrain your thinking at the office and as it happened, no rules to constrain your behaviour outside it.”

In each of these cases, the individuals concerned took some kind of action when they saw behaviour they could not condone. In other words, they were not blindly loyal. It’s worth remembering that loyalty is not written in stone. It should not be taken for granted or assumed by leaders, friends or employers. Loyalty is steadfast, but when someone’s own moral compass conflicts with the moral compass of another, loyalty can start to fray.

Loyalty is something that springs from your character or set of values that enables you to be faithful to a philosophy, a relationship or a country. Loyalty may also derive from gratefulness for a job, an opportunity or support in a tough time. But when first loyalties conflict with later concerns, that original loyalty may be in jeopardy.

Encouraging those with concerns to speak up is something a democratic society needs to foster, whether we like the results or not. Nowhere is this more important than in our political arena. Who remains loyal to whom in the political world is a key building block. The question of loyalty invades nomination meetings, party skirmishes, party elections, leadership situations and individuals who cross the floor.

In the recent case of Bruce Hyer, the former NDP/Independent MP who has now joined the Green Party, all kinds of questions were raised, as they were when Belinda Stronach jumped ship from the Conservative Party to the Liberals. Are floor crossers demonstrating loyalty to their conscience? Loyalty to their constituents? Or simply to their own ambitions? Like Mr. Snowden, are they traitors to their brand, be it a country or a party?

The recent attempt to put a gag order on the staff of Members’ of Parliament is equally confusing. Surely, professionalism and discretion are expected in any office (and that should be clear in a code of conduct which the employee signs) but a gag order?

Why now? After all the years that Parliament has been operational, there has been no need for this blanket attempt to muzzle staff. Is new technology straining ethical morals? If so, let’s discuss this openly and transparently – don’t shut the discussion down. Is the rationalization of the need to protect Canadians’ privacy a real concern? Or is this yet another attempt to control everyone on Parliament Hill from discussing their political bosses or the culture that exists on the Hill.

The fact that an all-party committee is re-examining the notion of the gag order is both hopeful and worrying. Our Westminster parliamentary system is one of hierarchy. The ‘top down’ authoritative control that so many of us complain about is deeply embedded in the way we do politics. There are leaders and followers. There are bosses and staffers. But there are also deeply serious individuals who care strongly about civility and freedom.

In Jim Collin’s seminal business book Good to Great, he states that “All companies have a culture, some companies have discipline, but few companies have a culture of discipline. When you have disciplined people, you don’t need hierarchy. When you have disciplined people, you don’t need excessive controls.”

Our system of government is not a corporation, nor should it be. But it’s a multidisciplinary world and we can all learn from each other. Let’s please foster courage. Let’s please insist on discipline.

We can be good followers of leaders but let’s not become a nation of sheep.

Penny Collenette
Special to The Globe and Mail