BY Jim Harding

We are trying to get more transparency and accountability in several institutions, from politics to sports. Are there any insights to be gleaned by comparing these situations?

What if hockey was run the way some local governments operate? You might have to hire a referee who would say a goal was scored, even when everyone watching the game knew it wasn’t. You might have to “fix” the game so that the goalie with the most local power and influence was permitted to move the goal posts when it served his or her purpose.

The ever-watching, fair-minded fans would, however, see that this wasn’t fair. Unlike with local government, there would be full transparency; the double standard would occur in the light of day. People would directly see that rules weren’t being applied equitably.

Achieving transparency in politics is harder. What about bylaws not being applied equally to an elected official or to a locally-influential property owner, with no one willing to expose this!


You would need some heavy-handed measures to keep hockey fans from talking about what they saw. Perhaps a ban on the fans being able to criticize the refs! Or, a ban on the right to complain about this, taking away due process! Or, if this didn’t work, a ban on the local press reporting that the score was rigged!

Clearly, for hockey to be fair and truly competitive, the score must be determined by agreed-upon rules enforced by an independent, professionally-trained and mandated referee.

But how can you ensure this in local government? Perhaps by knowing that there is professional and/or legal oversight so that politicians have to honour agreements, budgeting practices and funding formulas. As in hockey, some agreements would be open for renegotiation; but they couldn’t be arbitrarily changed in the “middle of a game”. Everything couldn’t be decided by “politics”

But what constitutes “fair play” in local government can be hard to discern. The ratepayer may not have all the information required to know what rules are being broken. Officials may do things to undermine or frustrate independent scrutiny. They may limit or distort information going to the electorate as part of their campaign for re-election. Politics rather than good governance can rule.


Nevertheless, the voting public has to be able to trust that officials are doing “the right thing”; this is what is meant by the “public trust”. Because the electorate doesn’t get to witness “the political game”, or see directly if double standards exist, the way a hockey fan can, there has to be such trust. However, this trust can be naïve or informed. An informed citizenry is clearly more able to keep local government accountable.

But this, too, is a challenge. Hockey fans may know the Rule Book better than voters know the Municipal Act, where the obligations of elected officials are listed. I have worked with elected officials who didn’t know what was in their Oath of Office or even much about their local bylaws. I suppose “not knowing” could be claimed as a defense, but I don’t think anyone would accept a hockey player intentionally causing a concussion, saying “I didn’t know the rules”.


In any sport, the fans must trust the referees, and those who set the rules. Fans must trust that there are no monetary benefits, or advantages, like doping, that influence the game. However we know with present FIFA soccer scandals, that sports can also be manipulated just like politics. If there isn’t a strong moral compass and real, consequential oversight, it too can become corrupt.

How can fans or voters ensure there is real accountability? Full transparency helps, but this is hard to achieve, especially when officials are tempted to “cover their asses”. There are rules for elections, but there are no rules saying that a candidate can’t use financial disinformation to garner support from poorly-informed ratepayers. There are standards of budgeting, obligations with Oaths of Office and professional ethics. But all these can be treated like marshmallows unless people look really closely at the “politics” at play.

In local government there is no agreed-upon referee and most of “the game” goes on behind-the-scenes. Minutes recording decisions and finances have to be transparent, but unless you know what’s actually happening, this information lacks context and meaning and can be confusing. Officials can always put their “spin” on information, if required.

So, do we need political referees? The province has finally required Conflict of Interest and Code of Conduct bylaws. This is a small but good start. The Ombudsman has also been empowered to take complaints about municipal government, though it can only recommend to the Minister. So politics can reenter.


Without an independent referee, working with agreed-upon rules, hockey could easily become a free-for-all. It’s already overflowing with testosterone. Without enforcement of rules, the throw-off-your-gloves fight could replace the shoot-out, as a way to pick a winner of a tied game. This would take us back to the Roman Coliseum.

Similar things can happen in local politics; I’ve seen lots of political bullying. Lots of peer pressures exist. There are often local networks, even old friendships, or business connections, working to shape outcomes in their favour. Sometimes officials aren’t comfortable raising ethical issues, or pointing to double standards, or breaches of privacy protections, and are inclined to go along with the most forceful colleagues. Unfortunately, aggression and fear can work.

This is a risky and potentially slippery slope which, if not contained, can get nearly everyone in trouble and having to cover for each other. It’s not because of “human nature”, though I know what people mean when they say this. It’s about when the rules are ambiguous, or disregarded, or manipulated, and others can’t find out what’s happening. And then things can get very personal and off-track.

Circling the wagons also happens in sports. It went on in FIFA for decades, until independent investigations with a clout finally occurred. There have been some problems keeping hockey “honest”, too. This clout is also required when local government becomes reduced to “local power politics”, and stops operating by due process and the rule of law.

Will we see any improvements when we have municipal elections later in the year?

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