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opinion

As Paul Martin prepares to become prime minister next Friday, he is making a to-do list and checking it twice. One of his immediate challenges came into clearer focus this week: the need to move swiftly to appoint a truly independent federal ethics czar.

Canada has had an ethics counsellor since 1994, in the person of Howard Wilson, but the position was flawed from the start. The counsellor is not independent; he reports not to Parliament but to the Prime Minister, who appointed him. His duties are severely circumscribed, and Mr. Wilson has done little over the years to rise above those. It was he, for instance, who oversaw the briefings given to then-finance-minister Martin about the affairs of his company CSL Ltd., owner of Canada Steamship Lines, during the years when CSL was supposedly in a blind trust.

More recently, Mr. Wilson concluded that the professional lobbyists who populate Mr. Martin's transition team, consulting with senior officials and advising Mr. Martin on who gets which ministerial post, may go back to lobbying the government the day after they leave the team. Not for them the one-year "cooling-off" period mandated for political advisers who leave the Prime Minister's Office. No, Mr. Wilson is content to have them promise not to discuss anything while on the transition team that might assist them when they return to influencing the politicians and officials they have worked with. Mr. Wilson is a trusting soul.

Mr. Martin ran into his own ethical tangle this week, as reports surfaced that as finance minister he flew on the private jets of powerful Canadians who, it may safely be assumed, have an interest in how the government shapes its laws. More than it used to be, the desire to smoke out potential conflicts is an area of abiding public concern. Several cabinet ministers owned up in October to having accepted expensive flights and/or lodging from the powerful Irving family of New Brunswick, whose lobby-worthy interests include shipbuilding, energy and forestry. Environment Minister David Anderson said the Irvings extended their 2001 invitation through an old friend, so he never thought of paying. Industry Minister Allan Rock at first said he did nothing wrong by accepting a freebie flight for him and his family to go fly-fishing at the Irvings' lodge, but was shamed into conceding this might have been an error in judgment.

This week's knock against Mr. Martin was less dire. He was revealed to have accepted five flights on private jets from Gerry Schwartz of the holding company Onex Corp. (computers, auto parts, entertainment), Wallace McCain of McCain Foods, Paul Desmarais of Power Corp. (financial services, media and petroleum) and, twice, shipping magnate Laurence Pathy of Fednav Ltd. He had disclosed them to Mr. Wilson, and had paid for three of the flights. The two from Mr. Pathy had been excused because the two long-time friends had long alternated paying for each other's vacations.

It will shock only the naive that a wealthy and powerful man who becomes prime minister will have wealthy and powerful friends. It is unrealistic to expect people who enter public life to rid themselves of their friends. What is important is that they recognize the new limits on the freedom to socialize that the post of prime minister, above all, imposes. The perception that a leader might be favouring buddies can undermine authority and com-promise action.

Mr. Martin, who is a man of integrity, has had plenty of experience in the thickets of conflict of interest. Before the 1990 Liberal leadership race (which he lost to Jean Chrétien), he voluntarily resigned all his directorships and took himself out of an active role at CSL. This year, after first balking at the thought of giving up control of CSL, he arranged to hand it to his sons.

Let us not be naive. Being who he is, with the interests, contacts and friendships he has had, Mr. Martin is bound to run into potential conflicts. Beyond his own instincts, he needs to create a truly independent counsellor who can step in to prevent missteps and, through Parliament, report to the public on how potential conflicts of interest are being handled. The sooner he asks Parliament to create such a position, the better for all concerned.