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New Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion promises to be ‘fearless’

Federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion, seen in Ottawa on Thursday, says he won’t be bound by the outgoing commissioner’s interpretations of the Conflict of Interest Act.

Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

The new federal Ethics Commissioner says he won't be bound by the way his predecessor interpreted the law and is open to discussing stronger penalties for ethics violations.

In his first media interview in the role, Mario Dion said he expects to continue the office's examination of Finance Minister Bill Morneau's pension legislation, although the Ethics Commissioner said he won't know for sure until he reviews the file first initiated by retired commissioner Mary Dawson.

Mr. Dion, who started the job on Tuesday, told The Globe and Mail he has a different style from Ms. Dawson – "I'm much more extroverted" – and won't be limited by her interpretations of the Conflict of Interest Act.

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"We're not bound by what Mary Dawson has interpreted in the past. You start from scratch essentially, from a legal perspective," he said.

He said his advice to politicians will be to go beyond the letter of the law when it comes to ethical standards.

"There are things that you may not have to do but in the interest of clarity and safety you should consider doing, and that will be my approach: to always recommend the safest course of action," Mr. Dion said.

The 61-year-old long-time public servant, who was recently head of the Immigration and Refugee Board, said he inherited four investigations from Ms. Dawson, including the Morneau file. He said he couldn't talk about two of the files for privacy reasons and one, involving former Stephen Harper aide Bruce Carson, was suspended because of criminal proceedings.

Mr. Dion said he plans on getting to the Morneau file by next week. In November, Ms. Dawson's office began examining whether the Finance Minister contravened Canada's ethics laws when he introduced pension legislation that could potentially benefit his former company. Mr. Morneau was cleared by Ms. Dawson in a separate case of insider trading allegations earlier this month.

"As Ms. Dawson has pointed out, the new commissioner can decide to pursue or not to pursue. She expects, of course, I will pursue – and so do I," Mr. Dion said. "But until I actually read the file I cannot state that that will be the case."

Ms. Dawson said she told the Finance Minister a blind trust was not necessary. She has also said that a loophole in the law allows public office holders to hold controlled assets indirectly – although she has advocated for closing it.

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Mr. Morneau has said that he consistently followed Ms. Dawson's advice and instead used an ethics screen in which his chief of staff was assigned to ensure the minister was not placed in a conflict of interest.

Mr. Dion suggested he's open to considering penalties for ethics violations, which currently don't exist, although it's ultimately up to Parliament to make any changes to the law.

"It's not a futile question in my view. It needs to be considered," he said.

The issue has been percolating since December, when Ms. Dawson ruled that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated four sections of the Conflict of Interest Act for his family's trips to the Aga Khan's private island in the Bahamas.

The findings carried no sanctions and Ms. Dawson said she didn't believe stronger penalties were needed beyond the shame of the publicity and potential fallout at the electorate.

Mr. Dion said he's open to discussing penalties such as fines.

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He said he views his role as akin to a judge, and his job is to investigate the facts, make a decision and stand by it.

"You have to be … fearless," he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a Nova Scotian town hall audience Tuesday he wants Canadians to know his government 'follows the rules' in terms of ethics when asked about his controversial 2016 Bahamas vacation. The Canadian Press
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