The federal Ethics Commissioner was right to rule that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty breached the Conflict of Interest Act when he wrote to the CRTC in support of a company based in his riding. But a close look at the case suggests that Mr. Flaherty's error was minor, and it demonstrates the difficulty cabinet ministers face when trying to serve their constituents in their other role as members of Parliament.
Mr. Flaherty wrote a standard MP's letter in support of a constituent's application for a broadcasting licence; the CRTC invites such comments during the application process. Mr. Flaherty's letter was written on his MP stationery, as opposed to the stationery he might use when writing in his capacity as Minister of Finance. He stated clearly, "As the MP for Whitby-Oshawa, I support their proposal and application." The wording was neutral; it did not urge the CRTC to take a particular action.
But then, after his signature, came the fatal words identifying Mr. Flaherty not only as the riding's MP but also as Minister of Finance and Minister Responsible for the Greater Toronto Area. Had those two lines not been there, there would have been no breach. It is for the inclusion of those words that Mr. Flaherty has rightly apologized.
The rules exist for a reason: to prevent cabinet ministers from unduly influencing courts and quasi-judicial bodies. They came into being in the wake of a 1994 scandal in which a Liberal cabinet minister wrote the CRTC a similar letter of support that closed with the ominous words, "I trust that you will keep me abreast of developments in this matter." The minister lost his post; the new rules subsequently brought about the resignation of another Liberal cabinet minister, David Collenette, after he asked the Immigration and Refugee Board to speed up a constituent's case.
Mr. Flaherty's offence was not in the same category. His letter was of the garden-variety type that MPs churn out on their constituents' behalf. There is some speculation that Mr. Flaherty, who has been Minister of Finance for almost seven years, will be moved out of the post later this year. It would be unfair if that were linked to such a relatively small mistake.