Finance Minister Bill Morneau is facing calls for stricter ethical oversight of government actions affecting his financial interests as he prepares to sit down on Thursday with the federal ethics czar and discuss his belated decision to put substantial personal holdings in a blind trust.
Deputy Conservative leader Lisa Raitt told The Globe and Mail that Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson should not allow a situation to continue in which the Finance Minister's chief of staff is the sole monitor of the ethical screen to prevent conflicts of interest arising from his connection to giant human-resource and pension-planning firm Morneau Shepell.
Before he was elected in 2015, Mr. Morneau was executive chairman of the company founded by his father and still owns one million shares in the firm that are worth just more than $20-million.
"His chief of staff is in charge of the ethical screen, but that seems to be kind of like the fox guarding the hen house because [that person is] dependent upon the minister for your employment," Ms. Raitt said.
The Finance Minister needs to demonstrate to Canadians that he is above reproach and should include the non-partisan deputy minister of finance as the ethical overseer of conflict of interest within his department along with the chief of staff, Ms. Raitt said.
When she became transport minister in the former Harper government, Ms. Raitt said both her chief of staff and the department's deputy minister, a civil servant, acted as ethical screens to ensure that she did not have any knowledge of activities involving the Hamilton Port Authority, where her husband was president.
"It is always about the integrity of the process for department officials. They don't want to have anything that is going to be called into question in terms of policy making so they will always err on the side of caution," she said.
"Of course, maybe that is the problem, that Mr. Morneau wasn't interested in having discussions about whether his shares of Morneau-Sheppell were going to be a problem when discussing pension-plan changes."
Mr. Morneau told reporters on Wednesday that he didn't enter public life to benefit himself financially and he believed that his chief of staff, Richard Maksymetz, did all that was needed to avoid any conflicts of interest.
"My view is that the conflict-of-interest screen that has been in place for the last two years as recommended by the ethics commissioner has worked," Mr. Morneau said.
The minister said the ethics screen only involves Morneau Shepell because his various private corporations and family trusts do not hold shares in other publicly traded companies.
"The Ethics Commissioner's view and the recommendations she made to me was there should be a conflict-of-interest screen [for Morneau Shepell] and there were no other conflict of interest screens required as I didn't hold any other shares and didn't do any other trading and wouldn't do any other trading over the course of that time," Mr. Morneau told reporters.
University of Toronto Professor Andrew Stark, who is an authority on ethics and conflict of interest, said Mr. Morneau should only have the deputy minister of finance act as the conflict-of-interest screen until the blind trust is set up and the trustee sells the one million Morneau Shepell shares owned by the Finance Minister.
"I think it is better to have the deputy minister do it without the chief of staff," he said. "The blind trust is supposed to be the gold standard and it is not necessary after a certain period to have any other remedy [such as an ethics screen]."
For two years as Finance Minister, Mr. Morneau had left the impression that his assets were in a blind trust. The wealthy Toronto businessman only decided to put those assets, including the one million shares of Morneau Shepell, in a blind trust last week after The Globe and Mail revealed that he had avoided placing his substantial personal holdings into such a blind trust.
In the House of Commons Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed continued questions about Mr. Morneau's conduct and accused the opposition of being jealous of the Liberal government's performance. "The members opposite have nothing to do but attack, because they have been shown – over the economic growth that we have created over the past two years – that they were completely wrong in the last election, and the Canadians were right to pick a better government."
Mr. Morneau defended his integrity on Wednesday, telling reporters he was "successful" in the private sector and his election to public office was a "huge opportunity" to help Canadians.
"So I think it is well understood by people who look towards people like me that we don't come into office for personal gain. We come into office to make an impact on our country. That is certainly my motivation," he said.
Opposition MPs have raised concerns that Mr. Morneau was the sponsor of Bill C-27, which would enable federally regulated businesses to create "target benefit" pension plans that lower the monetary liability for employers by shifting risk to employees. The proposed law would require actuarial valuations every year for this type of plans, which could also mean more work for firms such as Morneau Shepell.
The ethics screen called for Mr. Morneau's chief of staff to tell the Finance Minister when he had to recuse himself from discussions that involved his former company. Mr. Morneau's office said he has recused himself from cabinet discussions on two occasions but his office would not say if that involved Bill C-27.