The federal conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, Mario Dion, announced this week that he will retire on Feb. 21. He’s leaving five years into a seven-year mandate because of health problems. But as he heads out the door, he has something he wants Canadians to hear.
“Over the last five years and on several occasions, I have observed senior officials being unaware of their obligations and mistakenly making assumptions,” he said. The government, he went on, should send its ministers and parliamentary secretaries to his office for conflict of interest training.
Given that the only governments Mr. Dion oversaw over the last five years were those of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, it’s fair to say that his parting shot can be interpreted as one more condemnation of the Liberals’ chronic lapses.
He is essentially saying that the Liberals need to stay after school to attend remedial classes about such topics as “Why I can’t give taxpayers’ money to my friends and family,” and “Why it’s wrong to accept generous gifts from people who lobby the government.”
The case that prompted Mr. Dion’s suggestion involved a Liberal parliamentary secretary who was somehow unaware of explicit rules forbidding him from intervening with a quasi-judicial tribunal on behalf of someone’s private interests.
Greg Fergus, parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister, sent a letter to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in 2020 in support of a television station seeking a broadcasting license.
That might seem like an innocuous act. But there are clear rules that prohibit ministers and parliamentary secretaries from trying to influence a body like the CRTC – rules that can be found by anyone in a document posted online by the office of the ethics commissioner.
Mr. Fergus managed to miss the memo, but he is far from the worst Liberal offender.
Last December, Mr. Dion called out Mary Ng, the Minister of International Trade, for awarding contracts worth a total of $22,790 to a PR firm owned by a close friend. This space called for her resignation, a position that still stands.
In January, it surfaced in media reports that a senior staffer in the office of Housing Minister Ahmed Hussen had given $93,050 worth of contracts to a communications firm owned by her sister, a case that hasn’t yet been examined by the ethics commissioner but needs to be.
In 2021, Liberal MP Yasmin Ratansi was discovered to be employing her sister in her constituency office, a blatant violation of a rule forbidding the hiring of family members. Ms. Ratansi, who left the Liberal caucus over the affair and didn’t run for re-election in 2021, unsuccessfully tried to argue that the code didn’t apply to her case because her sister was a foster child taken in by her family in the 1950s.
And then there are the people at the very top of the Liberal Party. Mr. Trudeau was busted in 2017 for accepting a luxury Christmas holiday from the Aga Khan, whose charitable foundation lobbied the federal government. He was called out again in 2019 for trying to influence his former attorney-general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, on behalf of SNC-Lavalin. And in 2021, the former finance minister, Bill Morneau, broke the rules when he gave preferential treatment to WE Charity as it sought federal funding.
Without directly saying so, Mr. Dion has put his finger on a cultural problem in the Liberal Party: Its members don’t seem overly concerned with the conflict of interest rules that govern their jobs.
No doubt that’s because the rules are toothless, and often the only consequence of violating them is having to apologize in a mealy-mouthed tweet.
But given that knowing (and obeying) the rules about who you can give taxpayers’ money to is as much a part of the job of being in government as knowing (and obeying) the rules of the road is for a taxi driver, the fact that ministers and parliamentary secretaries need remedial conflict of interest lessons is just one more slap in the face of taxpaying Canadians.
Elected officials can’t be summarily fired like regular employees. Absent the threat of that, or of any other credible sanction, the consequence is that the people running Ottawa don’t know – or, even more worryingly, don’t care – about the conflict of interest rules.
The Liberals may not care, but Canadians do. They expect someone who is elected to Parliament to learn the rules and to obey them. It is, after all, the job.