Trade Minister Mary Ng stood up in the House of Commons and apologized for steering a contract to a friend.
“I take full responsibility for my actions,” she said.
But no, she didn’t.
Taking full responsibility for this kind of thing means resigning from cabinet. That’s what Art Eggleton had to do under very similar circumstances 20 years ago. Why isn’t Ms. Ng resigning now?
What Ms. Ng did, according to a report published on Tuesday by Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion, was steer a contract for communications advice to someone she herself has described as a “dear friend,” Amanda Alvaro. Ms. Alvaro’s firm received two modest communications contracts from the minister’s office, worth $5,840 and $16,950.
It is a lot like the case of then-defence minister Art Eggleton, who in 2002 steered a $36,500 contract to his former girlfriend’s communications firm. Mr. Eggleton had to resign.
The key difference is the lesser standard of accountability being applied now.
The sums of the contracts involved in Ms. Ng’s case are a little smaller. The ethics rules are slightly different, although in 2002, they were only cabinet guidelines and now they are law. The gist is still that ministers must not direct contracts to friends.
That seems simple enough to remember. Yet Ms. Ng forgot it. Twice.
The company Ms. Alvaro co-founded and led, Pomp & Circumstance, was given a first deal for media strategy and training for Ms. Ng in March, 2019, in a contract authorized by her chief of staff in her ministerial office.
The second contract, for $16,900, grew out of a call Ms. Ng made to Ms. Alvaro in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, 2020, when the Minister of Trade was getting a lot of interview requests. Ms. Alvaro quickly sent e-mails to her colleagues to start work, and the contract was issued just over a week later.
There is nothing mysterious there. Ms. Ng and Ms. Alvaro were old friends and former associates from Liberal provincial politics in Ontario. Ms. Alvaro acted as spokesperson for Ms. Ng’s first campaign in 2017 and had worked in political communications for years. It’s not surprising that Ms. Ng would want to get her communications advice from a pro she knows.
It’s just that it’s against the rules to steer a government contract to a friend.
If the Liberal government wanted to change the law to allow ministers to issue contracts to whomever they choose, they could ask Parliament to swallow that change. In the meantime, ministers have communications aides on their staffs to help with political messaging. Their political parties can hire friendly consultants, too.
What Ms. Ng did was what the law prohibits: She made a ministerial decision that benefited a friend. She apologized but there has been no consequence.
There have been, in other cases, some slim excuses for ministers who broke ethical rules and claimed the person who benefited was just a political acquaintance, or a distant relative who might get a tenuous advantage. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was adjudged to have broken the rules when he accepted a vacation on a private island from the Aga Khan, because the latter wasn’t deemed a real friend.
But there was no grey area in Ms. Ng’s case. And this was no marginal friendship with some obscure contractor. They are both veterans of the inner circle around the person who sets the accountability standards in this government: Mr. Trudeau.
Ms. Alvaro and Ms. Ng were old friends. They worked together for then-Ontario education minister Gerard Kennedy back in the early aughts. They celebrate birthdays together, and travel together, as Mr. Dion found. They are close.
Ms. Alvaro is a long-time Liberal activist, and a prominent one, too, who appears on TV pundit panels as a Liberal strategist. And both Ms. Ng and Ms. Alvaro are close friends of Mr. Trudeau’s powerful chief of staff, Katie Telford. Ms. Telford and Ms. Alvaro spearheaded Mr. Kennedy’s failed 2006 federal Liberal leadership bid, recruited Mr. Trudeau in to support the candidate, and effectively brought Mr. Trudeau into active Liberal politics.
But the problem is not in politicians having friends. It is when ministers arrange public business with their friends. When Mr. Eggleton did that 20 years ago, he was bounced from cabinet. Ms. Ng faces no consequences. That’s not enough.