Home Page Election 2019 News Opinion Foreign Policy Politics Policy Legislation Lobbying Hill Life & People Hill Climbers Heard On The Hill Calendar Archives Classifieds
Hill Times Events Inside Ottawa Directory Hill Times Store Hill Times Careers The Wire Report The Lobby Monitor Parliament Now
Subscribe Free Trial Reuse & Permissions Advertising
Log In
Opinion

Canada is weak on corporate crime

By Steven Bittle      
Share a story
The story link will be added automatically.

The SNC-Lavalin scandal is not just about Trudeau’s alleged muscling of his former attorney general to play nice with one of Quebec’s biggest employers—it is the harmful endpoint of four decades of privatization, the crafting of laws favouring powerful interests, and the unprecedented power of multinational corporations.

The story so far has been mostly about the politics—who knew what and when and who has done wrong—but it is really about the role the state can and should play in controlling corporations. And to date, the state has done far too little, leaving ordinary people exposed to the harms that result from corporate greed taking precedence over the rule of law.

While it’s important to find out what went on here, the roots of this scandal stem from a series of decisions by different governments over the past four decades to embrace privatization as a means of building public infrastructure and, in the process, ensure companies like SNC-Lavalin became ‘too big to fail’. For instance, P3s (public-private partnerships) are now the norm, meaning the stakes are extremely high for companies looking to secure lucrative contracts involving considerable public monies—a scenario that breeds ‘win-at-all-costs’ corporate cultures fostering bribery and other forms of malfeasance. What’s more, the fact successive governments have championed private enterprise is part of the reason why corporations have become so powerful, able to throw around their influence with relative ease. It’s also why governments find themselves in a contradictory position in facing the prospects of having to discipline the very entities they’ve helped catapult to such prominence.

Another issue requiring deeper scrutiny is Canada’s remediation agreements. For some, they’re an appropriate option for prosecutors in cases where a company admits wrongdoing before it’s uncovered by authorities. Through remediation, a company can plead guilty to an offence, pay a fine and/or enter an agreement to amend their policies and practices to avoid future offending. The logic of this approach is the belief it’s too difficult to investigate and prosecute complex financial crimes. However, Canada’s record of even trying to prosecute serious financial crimes is less than stellar, evidenced by the fact the country still doesn’t have a unified securities regulator and that the introduction of markets fraud legislation in 2003, along with resources to ensure its enforcement, has failed to generate tangible results. It is thus misleading to suggest remediation agreements can help address the difficulties of prosecuting financial corporate crimes when the government has never really seriously undertaken such efforts.

There’s also the issue of ensuring companies follow the conditions set out in remediation agreements. Based on its track record, we can’t really trust companies like SNC-Lavalin to openly and honestly report what they’re up to. And if governments aren’t prepared to regulate corporations adequately in the first place then there’s little chance they’ll be motivated or capable of doing so after the fact. Ensuring compliance with remediation agreements is therefore much more than a technical matter; it strikes at the heart of what it means to hold corporations accountable under the law.

Companies also aren’t prone to come forward to admit wrongdoing unless they have a rogue operative on their hands and/or they believe an offence is about to be exposed. If corporations were so motivated we wouldn’t have witnessed the litany of corporate scandals in recent decades that involved more than the occasional bad actor and wherein company officials failed to stop what was so obviously wrong. Either this situation means companies are rationally choosing to evade the law or they’re so disorganized or out of control that they struggle to operate legally. Regardless, the answer isn’t embracing alternative measures like remediation agreements, but instead to seriously discuss how best to control corporate criminals.

In the end, there exist very real incentives for corporate executives to ignore the law. From this vantage point, the problem isn’t the bad apples scenario we’ve heard so much about but that the barrel itself is rotten. If we’re serious about preventing another SNC-Lavalin from happening again, then we should use this case as the basis for going after bad corporate and state structures, not just an occasion to rain on Justin Trudeau’s promise of sunny politics.

Steven Bittle is an associate professor in the department of criminology at the University of Ottawa. 

The Hill Times 

Explore, analyze, understand
Inside Ottawa Directory – 2019 Edition
The handy reference guide includes: riding profiles, MPs by province, MP contact details, both Hill and constituency and more.

Get the book
Spinning History: A Witness to Harper’s Canada and 21st Century choices
An unvarnished look at the Harper years and what lies ahead for Canadians

Get the book
Sharp Wits & Busy Pens
Sharp Wits & Busy Pens, written by current and former Parliamentary Press Gallery reporters, tracks the evolution of political journalism in Canada

Get the book
Related Policy Briefings
Environment
Short and informative analyses on policy challenges that bring background and recommendations to policymakers, journalists and the general public.

Read policy briefing
Energy: Carbon Pricing Policy Briefing
Short and informative analyses on policy challenges that bring background and recommendations to policymakers, journalists and the general public.

Read policy briefing

Politics This Morning

Get the latest news from The Hill Times

Politics This Morning


Your email has been added. An email has been sent to your address, please click the link inside of it to confirm your subscription.

Digital ads the story of election 2019 budgets, say campaign vets

The NDP’s downsized leader’s tour could be a sign of things to come for future contests.

Campaigning ‘from the front’ will test Liberal strategists

News|By Abbas Rana
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is relying on the same senior strategists who helped him win a majority government in 2015. But it's a whole new ball game this time after four years in power.

Tried and tested team behind Conservative Party’s bid to return to government

Hamish Marshall is in charge as national campaign manager, supported by two deputy campaign managers: Dustin Van Vugt and Marc-André Leclerc.

Liberal election ad ‘head and shoulders’ above Tory, NDP offerings, says U.S. campaign guru

Justin Trudeau rides the bus as the Liberals contend with a ‘distance’ between high-flying Trudeau and average joes.

More parties, more polls, and voter ‘malaise’: tracking 2019 trickier, pollsters say

'People are waiting, they’re more and more strategic about their vote as well, so we feel like that last weekend is becoming extremely important,' says Léger’s Christian Bourque.

NDP defection gives Greens ‘boost’ in New Brunswick, but it’s still an ‘uphill battle’

The NDP needs to do a better job differentiating from the Greens, says interim NDP provincial leader Mackenzie Thomason. 'That is on us.'

‘They simply ran out the clock,’ says PSAC, as feds, union fail to reach deal before election

News|By Mike Lapointe
But a spokesperson for Treasury Board president Joyce Murray says the government continued to demonstrate its commitment to negotiating in good faith in last week’s talks with the union.

Trudeau triggers federal election call amid shadow of SNC-Lavalin affair

News|By Beatrice Paez
In seeking to contrast his party with the Conservatives, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaned on familiar attacks, invoking the spectre of the Harper government’s decade in office and the unpopular Ford government.

Parties take on phone bills, internet prices in election platforms

The Liberals and NDP have said price caps might be the answer, while Conservative MP Dan Albas said that would ‘knee cap’ investment.
Your group subscription includes premium access to Politics This Morning briefing.