Ot­tawa needs to raise its eth­i­cal game

Truro Daily News - - Opinion -

The con­tro­versy over Fi­nance Min­is­ter Bill Morneau’s han­dling of his per­sonal fi­nances has prompted a needed con­ver­sa­tion about Canada’s con­flict-of-in­ter­est law and the of­fice meant to en­force it.

Clearly some­thing is wrong. Morneau was al­lowed, by law and pur­port­edly on the ad­vice of Ot­tawa’s ethics watch­dog, to main­tain con­trol over a large stake in his for­mer com­pany, even as he ran the coun­try’s fi­nances. It is estab­lished pro­ce­dure, but not a re­quire­ment, for min­is­ters to place their hold­ings in a blind trust as a way of avoid­ing con­flicts of in­ter­est, real or per­ceived. That Morneau – and, we now know, at least one other in Justin Trudeau’s cab­i­net – did not do this is cause for real con­cern.

For these lapses, some have blamed loop­holes in Canada’s con­flict-of-in­ter­est law, some have blamed the watch­dog charged with en­forc­ing that law, and some have blamed the gov­ern­ment for its eth­i­cal lax­ity. Each view has merit.

There’s no doubt the fed­eral Con­flict of In­ter­est Act should be im­proved. A num­ber of sen­si­ble tweaks have been pro­posed in re­cent weeks, the most im­por­tant be­ing the clos­ing of the loop­hole that al­lowed Morneau to con­tinue to “in­di­rectly” man­age his in­vest­ments through a hold­ing com­pany. As ethics com­mis­sioner Mary Daw­son has long ar­gued, the ar­chi­tects of the coun­try’s fis­cal pol­icy should not be al­lowed to con­trol, even in­di­rectly, large per­sonal hold­ings. Oth­er­wise, as this case has il­lus­trated, the ap­pear­ance of con­flict is un­avoid­able.

The Morneau af­fair has also raised im­por­tant ques­tions about the role of the ethics com­mis­sioner. Some have sug­gested Daw­son’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the con­flict-of-in­ter­est law is overly nar­row, while oth­ers ar­gue she’s too in­clined to avoid con­tro­versy and re­luc­tant to chal­lenge of­fi­cials. To be fair, such crit­i­cisms were also lev­eled against her pre­de­ces­sor, and to some ex­tent they may be an in­evitable part of such a po­lit­i­cally charged po­si­tion.

But the re­cent con­tro­versy also makes clear the lim­i­ta­tions of a nar­rowly le­gal­is­tic in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the role. If Daw­son told Morneau that main­tain­ing in­di­rect con­trol over his in­vest­ments was al­lowed by the letter of the law with­out ad­vis­ing him that do­ing so would seem to vi­o­late its spirit, she failed.

The ethics com­mis­sioner should not just be an in­ter­preter of the act but also an ad­viser on eth­i­cal judg­ment. The gov­ern­ment is now 19 months into its search for Daw­son’s re­place­ment. It should fill the role now with some­one with a rep­u­ta­tion not just for up­right­ness and skill in le­gal in­ter­pre­ta­tion, but also for eth­i­cal rea­son­ing and lead­er­ship and with a record of in­de­pen­dent thought.

Still, not even the per­fect law paired with the per­fect watch­dog would be ad­e­quate to the chal­lenge of en­sur­ing eth­i­cal gov­ern­ment. Our con­flict-of-in­ter­est laws will never pro­vide an­swers for ev­ery eth­i­cal dilemma, nor should that be the goal. And, ul­ti­mately, the prime min­is­ter, his cab­i­net and other par­lia­men­tar­i­ans can­not out­source their own eth­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to a watch­dog.

Take the eth­i­cal scan­dals dog­ging the Lib­er­als. What­ever the con­flict-of-in­ter­est act says about the cash-for-ac­cess fundrais­ers the Trudeau gov­ern­ment for too long de­fended, these events clearly cre­ate the ap­pear­ance of pref­er­en­tial ac­cess. The gov­ern­ment should have known bet­ter. What­ever the ethics com­mis­sioner de­cides about the prime min­is­ter’s Yule­tide get­away to the Aga Khan’s pri­vate is­land, the trip clearly posed both eth­i­cal and op­ti­cal prob­lems. Trudeau should not have gone. What­ever the law on min­is­ters’ “in­di­rect” con­trol over their as­sets, Morneau’s fail­ure to ad­e­quately sep­a­rate him­self from his wealth looks fishy to us. It should have looked fishy to him.

We need a bet­ter con­flict-of-in­ter­est law and a watch­dog who can do more than sim­ply en­force it. But, as trust erodes and our democ­racy is tested, we also need moral lead­er­ship from our elected of­fi­cials.

This is what Trudeau seemed to be get­ting at in his man­date let­ters to his min­is­ters. “The ar­range­ment of your pri­vate af­fairs should bear the clos­est public scru­tiny,” he wrote, an “obli­ga­tion not fully dis­charged by sim­ply act­ing within the law.” The cynic will say that’s never go­ing to hap­pen, which is sim­ply proof of just how high is the hill to climb.

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