Eighteen months after Ottawa brought in tougher financial disclosure rules for senators, the country’s former Senate ethics watchdog is calling for them to be strengthened.
Canada’s senators are held to a Conflict of Interest code, governing outside business interests and what subject, if any, they need to abstain from debate on. The code is enforced by the Senate ethics officer, but the rules have been criticized as weak.
Jean Fournier, who retired as the ethics officer last year, said the changes aren’t enough. The Senate, he added, should require public disclosure of the general financial interests of each senator’s spouse – a move that might deter a senator from pushing for changes on a subject that affects his or her family’s bottom line.
It was among the recommendations he made to beef up disclosure rules, but it wasn’t adopted by the Conservatives. The rules “are dynamic and they can be reviewed and, in my view, should be reviewed from time to time,” he said.
Ottawa adopted new rules on May 1, 2012. More information is now available online, and the changes also compelled public release of inquiry reports and made it easier to declare a conflict of interest. Finally, senators must now confidentially provide their spouse’s financial interests to the ethics officer.
But Mr. Fournier said they should do so publicly, and he is also calling on government to more frequently publicize the proceedings of the conflict of interest committee and also to make the rules clearer.
His advice – “more housekeeping than anything else” – comes as the Auditor-General begins a review of the expenses of all senators after the spending scandal that led to the retirement of Mac Harb and the suspensions of Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin. Mr. Fournier, however, doesn’t think any problem is widespread.
“The media generally give the impression that this is endemic to the Senate, you know, all senators are painted with the same brush. I think we’re talking about a handful of senators here. I’m satisfied, in my mind, that it’s limited to that,” said Mr. Fournier, who spent 47 years in the public service.
The code has been dismissed as ineffective. Ms. Wallin, for instance, voted on a climate change bill while sitting on the board of an oil sands company. In that case, Mr. Fournier issued a written report saying Ms. Wallin did not violate the rules, because the law would be of “general application,” not specifically aimed at her company. One critic calls that a loophole.
“The Senate ethics code is a sad, loophole-filled joke because it allows senators to take part in decisions that affect their personal and corporate board interests and allows them to be essentially inside government lobbyists for big businesses and other organizations,” said Duff Conacher, founder of Democracy Watch, a Canadian non-profit group. He called the Senate ethics officer “a lapdog,” and said the rules should be strengthened.
The Globe reported Saturday that 46 of Canada’s 99 senators have a second job, including some who have earned more on corporate boards than in the Senate, and four who’ve skipped Senate proceedings for corporate work. This is within the rules, but Mr. Fournier said he was regularly asked by senators whether their outside work creates a conflict of interest.
Mr. Fournier said resources are focused on giving advice to senators and reviewing what senators tell the office, saying “it’s very easy to cross-check or cross-reference the information we get from them,” but it’s unclear how much time the ethics officer spends investigating whether senators leave out any information. The current officer didn’t specify what proactive work is done.
“Our office does fact checking, we raise questions, we address inconsistencies in reporting, and we discuss these matters with the senator,” said a statement from the office of Lyse Ricard, the current ethics officer, who declined requests for an interview. The statement said it was too soon to talk about new changes to the code, suggesting Mr. Fournier’s advice won’t soon be considered.
Mr. Fournier believes the code should be under constant review, saying of Canada’s system: “Is it perfect? No. Is it a work in progress? Yes.”