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Principle over blind loyalty

Integrity challenged: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has endured a trying recent period (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press via AP)

I recall back in and around 1998, Bermuda’s change to politically appointed MPs for the post of Attorney-General, which caused me to ponder the difference in efficacy between those government systems that have the AG’s chambers as part of the government cabinet and those with completely separate offices.

To be clear in either case, the Attorney-General has access to Cabinet deliberations. But is one really any better than the other? The truth to that may come down to a single factor of courage.

The United States claims three separate branches of government, when in fact, the Attorney-General, which heads one such branch, is appointed by the President. It is not simply the appearance of separation, it is the principle that speaks to the impartiality of the justice system and oath of office that must be upheld.

The idea that everyone is equal before the law and no one is above the law is a high principle, and the integrity of that principle as a function of the judiciary protects the Government and keeps its nose clean. It protects the people and keeps the institutions of the country flowing.

No one comes without their bias and thus the Attorney-General’s office naturally creates a human challenge for persons to set aside personal affiliations and bias for the adherence to law and constitutionality to truly fulfil what the post demands.

It is a tall order, too often disregarded or abused to the extent that in some jurisdictions, it is like a culture of abuse and the judiciary is merely a cosmetic entity whose deliberations are perfunctory. Even countries with sophisticated and modern styles of government, and who boast democratic values, can suffer the same ignominy.

There is an episode in Canada at present that threatens the liberal government of Justin Trudeau. The Attorney-General was removed from her post after refusing to yield to attempts by the Prime Minister’s office to cause her to consider a route other than one that led to the prosecution of a large company.

The Attorney-General when being questioned about the issue, under oath, said to the world on television that the Prime Minister cited potential job loses, an election year and the negative effect on the economy if they prosecuted and offered that she does a “deferred prosecution” instead. To which she responded to him by asking if he was interfering with the independence of her role as Attorney-General by requesting she make a judicial ruling on the basis of a political consideration. She was removed from her post as Attorney-General and given another ministry.

The countervailing argument in her case was that the Government must do what is important or is imperative for the economy.

Her morality and bravery represented a rare display of one willing to suffer the personal consequences to uphold the integrity of the office of Attorney-General.

Jeff Sessions did similar in the US until he was removed, John McCain took a similar stance against his own president in his role as a Republican senator. It comes down to whether one has the personal integrity and courage to stand up for the principle of that office and then commit to the oath.

Too often it’s the case where they follow their allegiances, forsake law and hold on to the position and benefits. Also, it falls on the leaders and the civil servants who communicate their aims with the Attorney-General to be able to respect the character of the advice given as impersonal and not use them like football buddies or comrades.

Governing is a responsibility whose principles are often referred to during electioneering by political parties, but during tenure performance generally melts against those principles like ice in the midday sun. The challenges to be a modern, open and civilised government are not easy. The largest and perhaps most important characteristic for a government to develop is that of restraint.