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Politics The federal ethics watchdog job is filled, never mind the inherited mess

From the way the Liberal government handled the appointment of the new ethics commissioner – when it finally got around to it – you'd think it's just a matter of finding some bureaucrat to fill a job. But the new ethics commissioner, Mario Dion, is walking into a mess.

Under outgoing Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson, investigations have dragged on from months to years, and compliance efforts have focused on punctilious details, but fallen short on its basic mission – which is to prevent public-office holders from being in a conflict of interest. The office is supposed to reassure Canadians about their political system, but it's broken.

Now, Mr. Dion is being rushed into the job, named by the Liberals at the 11th hour so they would not have to extend Ms. Dawson's expired mandate for a third time. A replacement should have been named 18 months ago, but the Liberals interviewed Mr. Dion in November, and MPs had an hour to interview him. The public has no reason to be confident he's the right person to fix things. Who can tell after such a quickie appointment process?

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The unfortunate little secret in Parliament is that none of the political parties have an interest in drawing attention to the dysfunction in the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. They want to fight each other, so they don't take swings at the referee. But it's the public who should really care if the umpire makes bad calls.

It should be obvious now that that's been happening.

The ethics commissioner has broad powers to ensure public office holders don't get into conflicts of interest, but Finance Minister Bill Morneau now faces several accusations he made decisions that could boost the value of held shares in the family company he used to run, Morneau Shepell.

Public office holders are supposed to divest such stocks, but Ms. Dawson decided there was a loophole that allows public office holders to keep them through a private company. And crucially, despite that debatable loophole, Ms. Dawson still had broad powers to order a sale, or at least clear public disclosure of the fact that he still owned them, but she didn't use them. She allowed the Finance Minister to be in a conflict of interest. Her office also doesn't appear to be up to the task of investigating breaches. It often takes more than a year to report. Ms. Dawson still hasn't reported on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Christmas, 2016, vacation to the private island of the Aga Khan. Yet there doesn't seem to be any dispute about the facts.

"I don't know what else there is to know," said NDP MP Nathan Cullen, the party's ethics critic. But Mr. Cullen and the NDP don't really want to attack the referee. Conservative ethics critic Peter Kent said his party wanted to focus on the transgressors in government. "We didn't want to pick a fight with Commissioner Dawson," he said.

That's a laudable instinct. But now there's dysfunction, and we don't know if Mr. Dion is the right person to fix it. He was rushed through a one-hour interview at the ethics committee. The NDP abstained on the vote to approve his appointment. He is a government veteran, a former senior bureaucrat who became chair of the National Parole Board, the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, then chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board. He's really a lifelong bureaucrat, although the original intent was to appoint an arbiter such as a retired judge, not a bureaucrat, to the post.

In Mr. Dion's only watchdog role as Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, he was faulted by the Auditor-General for "gross mismanagement" in two files, although he argues those were failings as he turned the office around after his predecessor resigned in disgrace. In speaking to the Commons ethics committee last week, Mr. Dion hinted that he knows he has things to fix, saying investigations require "timeliness."

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But the public didn't really get to see if he understands the ethics commissioner has a central purpose: to prevent public office holders from getting into substantial conflicts of interest. All the public really knows is that he has filled senior posts, not whether he can fix what's broken. The opposition wasn't willing to fight about it. And the Liberal government finally filled the job, but didn't seem to worry about fixing the problem.

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