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Canada’s Corporate Governance Guidelines Are Out of Date

In my teaching, research and consulting, I no longer use “NP-58201 Corporate Governance Guidelines,” June 17, 2005 (“Guidelines”), that apply to publicly traded companies in Canada, as an example of exemplary corporate governance. I regard them as stale and dated. I cannot think of another developed country that has not updated its governance guidelines in almost 10 years. There have been more changes to governance since the financial crisis of 2008 than in a generation. And we are only about half way through all of them. Canadian regulators – including all provinces and territories – need to keep up, and step up.

Here are the deficiencies to the Guidelines as I see them:

1. Lack of principles and practices: Our Guidelines are four pages long. The UK’s new Code (September 2014) is thirty-six pages. Australia’s Principles and Recommendations (March 2014) are forty-four. South Africa’s “King III” (2009) is sixty-six pages, to pick only three examples. Quantity is not necessarily quality, but by having such succinct guidelines, the opportunity to set out (i) best practices that (ii) achieve the objective of principles is gone. It is comply or explain against a perfunctory unitary guideline, which can be – and is – gamed by reporting management. There should be more robust guidance, where the regulator explains various ways good governance can occur, from which listed companies can pick and choose according to their circumstances.

2. Lack of focus on risk management: Take risk for example. The Canadian Guidelines simply state that the board should identify principal risks and ensure appropriate systems are in place to manage these risks. I have no idea what this actually means, nor may directors. Risk management oversight now involves an explicit risk appetite framework, internal controls to mitigate, technology, limitations, and assurance provided directly to the board and committees by independent risk, compliance, and internal audit functions. None of these practices, which are very much addressed by other regulators, appear in the 2005 Guidelines. Consequently, many public companies have immature risk management, especially in addressing non-financial risks such as cyber security, operations, terrorism and reputation. Regulatory inaction has an effect. Even a forward-thinking director may be blocked by intransigent management to devote greater resources to mitigating risk because of inadequate regulation.

3. Lack of independence of mind: In Canada, a board can subjectively believe a director to be independent, but this belief need not be independently validated, nor tied to any objective or reasonable standard. Nowhere else can a conflict of interest lack a perceptual foundation. As a result, directors tell me how colleagues are compromised by an office, perks, vacations, gifts, jobs for friends, social relatedness, relations to major shareholders, excessive pay, excessive tenure, interlocks, and other forms of capture. If a director or chair is captured, they are owned by management and totally ineffective. If there is a difference between regulatory independence and the independence of mind of directors, the fault lies with the regulation. Regulators should implement an objective standard of director independence, not a subjective one.

4. Lack of industry expertise: It was admitted in open forum that the original 1994 committee did little research. Sufficient industry expertise on boards is glaringly absent from the Guidelines, and consequently in many boardrooms. We are suffering from an independence legacy, perpetuated by entrenched directors, and unsupported by academic research. For example, in Australia, two academics claim has cost their country’s decline in shareholder value between 30 and 50 billion Australian dollars (“Does “Board Independence” Destroy Corporate Value,” by Peter L. Swan and David Forsberg).

Fraud, meltdowns and underperformance such as Nortel, RIM and CP all had a paucity of industry experts on their boards, including, most recently, Tesco in the UK. JP Morgan at the time of the risk management failure did not have a single independent director with banking experience. Prior to Bill Ackman’s involvement in CP, not a single independent director had rail experience. I recently assessed a similar board and not a single director had the necessary industry experience. The Guidelines should require relevant industry expertise on boards. I recommended this to OSFI when I was retained by them to examine their earlier guidelines, and this is now the law for all federally regulated financial institutions, along with risk expertise being present on boards.

5. Lack of financial literacy and internal audit: There is no requirement to be financially literate to sit, initially, on an audit committee of a Canadian public company. This presumes someone can acquire financial literacy as opposed to having it to begin with. There is also no requirement to have an internal audit function for a Canadian public company. This should also change so audit committee members hit the ground running, and there should be a comply or explain approach to internal audit. In many compliance failures, there is a defective or non-existent internal audit function, with a weak audit committee lacking recent and relevant expertise. Regulators are now moving towards “independent coordinated assurance,” which means that reporting to, and functional oversight by, the board and committees are fulfilled by internal and external personnel who are independent of senior and operating management, including, most importantly, an effective and independent internal audit function.

Join me next week where I will talk about 6-10, including: lack of shareholder engagement; lack of focus on strategy and value creation; lack of focus on sustainability; lack of compensation guidance; and lack of focus on the chair of the board.

Combatting Political Corruption in Canada

There are now two RCMP investigations of potential breach of trust and bribery allegations of a sitting politician involving Senator Mike Duffy and the Prime Minster’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright.

Senator Pamela Wallin is accused of having taxpayers, at least partially, fund her travel to private events, speeches and board meetings. (Why are Senators even permitted to serve on boards?)

In Quebec, the Montreal mayor who replaced the former mayor has also been charged with multiple corruption counts this past week. SNC Lavalin, a Quebec company, has been charged with bribery and is banned from World Bank contracts for ten years. Arthur Porter, former director of Air Canada, McGill University Health Centre CEO, and member of Canada’s Security Intelligence Review Committee, is fighting extradition from Panama to face bribery charges. The Quebec-based sponsorship scandal is well known, and former Quebec-based Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was reputed to have received cash payments in envelopes.

See “‘Pristine Canada Mired in Scandal After Montreal Arrest.”  Two journalists yesterday called the incumbent Prime Minister incompetent and tone deaf to address it.

The Charbonneau Commission in Quebec has heard from 80 witnesses involving allegations of price fixing, collusion, cash payments to win business, influence peddling, threats and extortion. Current and former politicians have been arrested, offices have been raided, and there are likely more arrests to come.

Quebecers are understandably outraged. Potholes in Montreal are well known, and asphalt suppliers evidently colluded to inflate prices by 80% and reduce the asphalt quality. I see this when I visit Montreal. It is a feeling. It starts right with the taxis refusing to take credit cards and wanting cash only. You get a sense of deep cultural and historic embeddedness in the way business is done. A royal commission inquiry was called by the Quebec prime minister, Louis Gouin, in 1909. It lasted 115 days, had 914 witnesses and 548 pieces of evidence were presented. In the words of an executive via private email, “it took about 100 years to go from 25% to 3%, which may mean another 15 years to clean the rest.”

Canadians have been bombarded over the last few months with stunning lack of ethics, internal controls, and even the most rudimentary governance and accountability practices in government. The Senate had to issue new rules on basic concepts such as producing receipts for taxis and providing a specific purpose for travel when claiming expenses. The Senate used to proceed on the “honor” system. Imagine for a moment if an executive claimed travel on “the honor system.”

See a few examples from the new rules:

“3. Require a Senator to provide a specific purpose for travel when claiming expenses.”

“5. Require taxi receipts be provided when claiming taxi expenses.”

The Senate, in 2013, actually had to instruct Senators to provide receipts!

And the Senate, in 2013, actually had to request an independent auditor to audit its financial expenses. Imagine if a public company did not have an auditor?

And the bar for extracting a politician is not malfeasance or misfeasance, like it is in a company for an executive, but actual criminal charges and even prison. In other words, unless a politician actually goes to prison, he or she may not have to resign, or even answer allegations, and there are no other mechanisms, such as compelled public testimony or recall.

Imagine if a CEO said to a board of directors that this was the condition of succession or replacement – prison.

Anti-corruption is not rocket science. There are proven methods to corrupt and bribe. What is needed is a complete rehaul, including codes, controls, audits, assurance and reporting (including whistle-blowing).

The foregoing takes time, energy and money. The advantage I am seeing is that a judicial inquiry is afoot and there are arrests. This, I have not seen before. These are positive steps, but the recommendations from the judicial commission must be far reaching, deep and enforced. Corruption can be counteracted, but the judicial report should be rigorous, and there should be built-in time frames and personal/office accountability for implementing the recommendations, with penalties for non-implementation, reporting and follow up. This is how you do it.

In other words, government (at all levels) has to not only lead by example, but should impose the same huge overlay of regulation (and cost) that it imposes on public companies, on itself. Then, and only then, will it have the credibility, transparency and best practice accountability that the private sector now has.

Interview regarding governance and accountability aspects of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford

Here is my CBC interview regarding Mayor Rob Ford, with two other panelists:

The Mayor of Toronto’s entrenchment needs to end

Mayor Rob Ford’s stubborn refusal to address substantively the allegations of drug use, and the reputational contagion and distraction it has caused, needs to be addressed in short order.

Councillors should take all reasonable steps to procure Mr. Ford’s addressing of the issue, and if not, escalate as appropriate, including initiating removal from office if Mr. Ford does not answer the allegations, so the City’s business can continue. Mr. Ford’s brother, Councillor Doug Ford, is in a conflict of interest and should recuse himself from any process.

In a corporate setting, a Chief Executive engaging in similar patterns of behavior would not be tolerated by any board of directors. The CEO would have been fired long ago.

There are two issues here. One is behavour. The second is the ability to operate. The behavior – ranging from alleged conflicts of interest, boozing, womanizing, and now crack cocaine use, means that the Mayor’s political influence has become toxic. His ability to reach across the aisle, procure concessions, exert influence, and come to deals – so critical in the political process, has effectively ended. Operators and CEOs in the private sector would likely exercise an abundance of caution in discussions and City investment for reputational reasons and the inability of the Mayor to broker consensus.

Any CEO who had similar patterns would be unable to lead and operate as well.

Corporations now take extremely seriously reputation risk and the corporate brand. All executives, and indeed any employee, are representative of that brand now, with social media. There are internal controls over integrity, codes of conduct, social media response teams, and crisis planning that were not present even a few years ago.

The notion that a CEO could not respond in a business setting simply would not happen. Toronto City Council needs to hold their chief executive accountable, so the more important issues before the City can be addressed.

Political accountability and self dealing

A municipal politician told my graduate class when he spoke about accountability in public office this week that politicians have the ability to make someone rich or poor by decisions that they make. When and how they make those decisions should be subject to rigorous controls and public scrutiny. Herein lies the potential for corruption in government: the awarding of contracts, the influence by the private sector, and self-dealing by public office holders.

Consider the following:

A politician from Quebec acknowledges receiving envelopes of cash from a businessman for lobbying efforts. Another Quebec politician is alleged to have profited personally from real estate deals and government policies. The Federal “sponsorship scandal” originated in Quebec. SNC Lavalin, a large construction company based in Quebec, is accused of massive bribery schemes and its former CEO has been arrested. (Its chair and three directors were replaced yesterday.) A Dr. Arthur Porter, former head of the McGill University Health Centre, in Quebec, faces fraud allegations. The mayors of Montreal and Laval, Quebec, have resigned amid corruption allegations. Quebec’s anti-corruption squad has raided corporate, political and home offices in Quebec. Last week, a high-profile Hells Angel member was arrested in Quebec.

Justice France Charbonneau needs to propose comprehensive mandatory reforms to address organized crime and corruption in Quebec, similar to Justice Denise Bellamy’s recommendations for the City of Toronto.

Corruption and bribery thrive when the very recipients of it are in power. Politicians need to be instructed by this independent judicial inquiry – the Charbonneau Commission – to implement reforms to internal controls, transparency, codes of conduct, independent audits, whistle-blowing, conflicts of interest policies, lobbying, communication, education, monitoring and enforcement. These standards and practices should be established for any political body, be it federal, provincial or municipal.

Lastly, governments need to lead by example. They need to impose the equivalent controls and expectations of accountability and transparency on themselves that they insist upon for the private sector.


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