That Bill Morneau is selling his shares in his family business and doing additional penance by donating to charity the increase in their value since 2015 – an amount over $5 million – should satisfy most people as a reasonable end to the scandal surrounding the actions of the Finance Minister.
But this story is not yet over. It has revealed a barn-door-sized hole in the federal Conflict of Interest Act, which must be closed.
Mr. Morneau held onto his million shares, rather than selling them or putting them in a blind trust, as the Conflict of Interest Act normally requires, after the ethics commissioner, Mary Dawson, told him he wasn't required to take either step. Why not? Because the shares were stashed away in a numbered company, and were therefore held indirectly.
That loophole meant that Mr. Morneau was not breaking the law. But the loophole itself violates the spirit of the law. It places any politician relying on it in a position that looks to the average citizen like a conflict of interest.
Ms. Dawson's job is to enforce the spirit of the law, not emphasize its flaws. She should have told Mr. Morneau in blunt terms that, as finance minister, anything less than the sale of his shares would put him in a potential conflict; that using a blind trust would not have been sufficient since the entire holding was in a single stock; and that trying to hide behind a numbered company was, though legal, the worst of all possible options.
The optics of the Finance Minister's choice were terrible – and conflict of interest is all about appearance.
Ms. Dawson has been criticized for the advice she gave Mr. Morneau. But she pointed out the glitch in the law as far back as 2013, and recommended that Parliament close it. Nothing happened.
Suddenly, thanks to Mr. Morneau, the loophole is now top of mind. And Ms. Dawson has since dropped the bombshell that there are other, unnamed cabinet ministers in the Trudeau government who are using it. Conservative MPs, who failed to seal the loophole when they were in power, are demanding to know who else walked through the door they left open.
The Trudeau government can and should put an end to this political circus by tabling an amendment to the conflict law, so that it applies to all assets, whether held directly or indirectly.
Such a move would strengthen the Conflict of Interest Act in the eyes of Canadians, something that is badly needed at this point.