This is a moment that calls for a refresher on the basics of nepotism and conflict of interest.
Not for ordinary Canadians, who remain capable of applying a smell test to determine if things seem fishy. But rather for members of Parliament, who have codes and guidelines and advisers, but apparently still can’t figure out when something stinks.
So let’s review the cases of MP Yasmin Ratansi – just forced out of the Liberal caucus – who didn’t know she shouldn’t hire her sister as her constituency assistant, and Conservative MP Andrew Scheer, who didn’t know he shouldn’t hire his sister-in-law who in turn hired his wife.
Mr. Scheer’s job triangle is admittedly a little more complicated, but then he had already straight-up employed his own sister, Anne Marie Grabetz, for years – that is until the rule changes he oversaw as Speaker of the House of Commons made that specifically verboten back a few years.
The new rules didn’t make it explicitly forbidden for Mr. Scheer to employ his sister-in-law, Erica Honoway, so he kept her on for years. More recently, Mr. Scheer’s wife, Jill, worked for Ms. Honoway’s company. Ms. Grabetz moved on to work for a few years for Mr. Scheer’s friend, Conservative senator Denise Batters.
Got all that?
The basic smell test principles seem to have been beyond Mr. Scheer, a former leader of the opposition, who, let’s recall, also had the Conservative Party pay for his kids' private school, and Ms. Ratansi, who was first elected 16 years ago.
The ethical rules around hiring of relatives have so confused that even Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion turned back a complaint about Ms. Ratansi’s hiring of her sister two years ago, saying it didn’t seem to violate the rules, not his department etc. Mr. Dion recently reconsidered this view upon reading about the controversy in the news.
To be fair, there are a host of parliamentary guidelines and 34 clauses in the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons.
So here is a simplified guide for MPs: Don’t hire relatives.
To elaborate: Don’t hire your siblings, or children, or your step-children, or your spouse, or in-laws. Don’t hire your colleagues' siblings or spouses or children and so on. And since Mr. Scheer’s situation raised the question, don’t hire your spouse’s employer, either, because as other parties pointed out, that looks like a quid pro quo. In fact, if you have an ethical question that begins with the words, “Am I allowed to hire my …” then assume the answer is “No.”
This is a general rule to be kept in mind no matter what the letter of the law is or what Mr. Dion thinks. Because, you know, smell test.
Parliamentary legend is littered with sordid tales of nepotism, of people hired for jobs that didn’t really involve work or MPs hiring each other’s children or spouses. But in 2020, there’s an expectation that people hired on the public tab are there to serve the public and not as a favour. Hiring relatives discredits the system. Even if they have qualifications.
All this fits with the principles in the Conflict of Interest Code that MPs are supposed to follow.
The code tells MPs they are supposed to “uphold the highest standards so as to avoid real or apparent conflicts of interests, and maintain and enhance public confidence and trust in the integrity of each member and in the House of Commons.” They are supposed to arrange their affairs “in manner that bears the closest public scrutiny.”
So what has happened in these cases? The Liberal Party says it was shocked – shocked – to learn there were relatives working in Ms. Ratansi’s constituency office. She had to leave the party’s caucus. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said Mr. Scheer’s hiring practices did not meet his ethical bar, but met the rules – which sounds like case closed, although to make sure everyone was unsatisfied Mr. Scheer did fire his sister-in-law.
You’d think party leaders and their whips would be reading the riot act. Two MPs, both veterans, and one a former Speaker and former party leader, are making parliamentarians look like a bad bunch. Maybe the leaders need to send them to mandatory training with a refresher course in the basics of ethics and hiring on the public purse, to help those poor MPs who have gone nose-blind and can no longer perform a smell test.
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