In an increasingly complex world, conflicts of interest will only multiply. Parliament must take steps to ensure that we are ready for the test, and not blind to it.
She’s an Order of Canada recipient and the independent Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, an appointment made in consultation with all federal Leaders. Her office belongs to Parliament itself.
He is the Minister of Finance for Canada, answerable to the Prime Minister and to the electors of Toronto Centre.
She does not wish a reappointment. He is expected to run for re-election in 2019.
She is a highly respected public servant who was a final legislative drafter for the patriation of the Canadian Constitution as well as the top legal adviser for Meech Lake, the Charlottetown accord, the Quebec Secession Reference, the Clarity Act and same-sex marriage.
He is the scion of a wealthy Toronto family known for both their business success and philanthropic generosity. Educated in both Canada and Europe, he was one of the Prime Minister’s star recruits as a candidate in the 2015 election. Upon election, he was immediately appointed to the Finance portfolio, normally reserved for the most senior and tested politicians.
Both have served their communities. She is Governor Emeritus at the Ottawa Hospital. He was the Board Chair of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
She is Mary Dawson and he is Bill Morneau. In a perfect world, they would be sitting side by side in a boardroom, governing a worthy not for profit organization.
Instead, she is examining him, at the request of the opposition parties and because she has “reasonable” grounds to do so, for allegations of an unprecedented conflict of interest as a minister.
How did the government get to this ethical quagmire? In addition to the back and forth advice between Morneau and Dawson, two highly reputable individuals, are there systemic issues which may have contributed to this predicament? Conflicts of interests often hide in plain sight but unless there is rigorous awareness and training of the issues, they can be overlooked.
To avoid conflicts, timely disclosure of assets to an independent party is a requirement. No one can verify or monitor what they do not know. In a lead up to the present situation, Morneau revealed late in the disclosure regime that due to “an administrative oversight,” he had neglected to declare a family residence in France which was owned by a numbered company. Dawson’s office fined him $200.00.
Morneau then ran headlong into allegations that Bill C-27, pension reform legislation which he tabled, might also benefit his family company.
In retrospect, it must be asked if there were early warning signals from the Department of Finance, the Prime Minister’s Office or the Privy Council Office, questioning whether a Finance Minister with very specific business interests in pension reform, was the best person to be appointed to the Finance portfolio, let alone sponsor the bill? Did no one consider the conflict of interest issue? Or was everyone blithely unaware of this lurking elephant in the room?
When the Minister subsequently revealed he had not placed his assets into a blind trust (as had the Prime Minister) but instead, based on Dawson’s advice, implemented a screening process in his office to shield him from interference with the legislation, further eyebrows were raised. He has subsequently placed his assets in a blind trust, which seemingly indicates a change in his decision-making process.
Dawson confirmed that because his shares were controlled by a private company and not directly by the Minister, a conflict of screening regime was an option but interestingly, she had advised the Harper government in 2013, to close this particular escape route for ministers. Her advice was ignored by both the Conservatives and the Liberals, inadvertently creating political opportunity for the NDP.
Morneau then declared his intention to donate $5 million to charity, the amount generated by his shares since he became a Minister. It’s a laudable gesture but requires more clarification. Who will receive the tax credit for the donations? Will the donations be directed to national or local charities?
Until the results of Dawson’s examination are made public, we are left in limbo because the confidential advice that she is required to give hundreds of elected officials and over 2,000 public office holders occasionally clashes with our 24/7 need for transparency and immediate answers. (Future amendments to the legislation may want to grant exceptions to the confidential nature, if it is deemed to be in the public interest)
But one thing is certain. In an increasingly complex world, conflicts of interest will only multiply. Parliament must take steps to ensure that we are ready for the test, and not blind to it.
Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chrétien.