The federal Liberals are defending their choice to appoint a senior cabinet minister’s sister-in-law as the government’s interim Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, as opposition parties argue that her very presence in the role will create the type of ethical bind the office exists to combat.
The new interim commissioner, Martine Richard, is the sister-in-law of Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet appointed her on Monday.
In a brief interview with The Globe and Mail on Thursday, Government House Leader Mark Holland said he understands the questions about Ms. Richard’s appointment. But he rejected the notion that she can’t do the job.
“I have every expectation, as she has in the past, that she will not ever do anything other than serve the office for which she works,” he said.
The government didn’t issue a news release on the appointment. On Tuesday, the commissioner’s office made a brief social media post to note the change. Most Ottawa journalists were covering the release of the federal budget that day, which involved an hours-long lockup where phones and internet use were not allowed.
The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment Thursday, and directed The Globe to its bureaucratic arm, the Privy Council Office.
Privy Council spokesperson Stéphane Shank said Ms. Richard will “provide the necessary organizational stability” while the government looks for a permanent replacement for the former commissioner, Mario Dion, who resigned his post in February citing health issues. Mr. Shank said the government also did not issue a press release to announce a previous interim commissioner.
Ms. Richard has worked in the commissioner’s office since 2013, and has served as senior general counsel there since 2015. Her interim appointment to the top job is for a six-month period. The commissioner is responsible for administering the federal Conflict of Interest Act, and for helping elected and appointed officials avoid conflicts between their public duties and private interests.
The commissioner’s office’s spokesperson, Melanie Rushworth, said Ms. Richard has “always had a conflict-of-interest screen in place for any matters related to her brother-in-law.” In addition to being a member of cabinet, Mr. LeBlanc is a close friend of Mr. Trudeau.
The Prime Minister and his cabinet have been plagued by so many ethics-law breaches that Mr. Dion, the former commissioner, recommended that all ministers and parliamentary secretaries receive training from his office.
The Official Opposition argued Thursday that Ms. Richard’s appointment shows the government has not heeded the ethics commissioner’s advice.
“When are these Liberals going to take their responsibilities seriously, and appoint someone who’s independent and can restore accountability?” Conservative MP Michael Barrett asked in Question Period.
“The ethics commissioner’s job is to hold us to the highest possible standard,” Mr. Holland replied in the House of Commons. “The idea that a public servant can’t – when they have a screen in place – do their job, or set aside differences, is not realistic.”
The NDP, who have an agreement with the minority Liberals to keep them in power, called on Thursday for someone else to hold the interim position.
“The ethics commissioner needs to be above any reproach,” NDP House Leader Peter Julian told reporters outside the House of Commons.
He said Ms. Richard’s appointment is not appropriate, though he acknowledged her decade in the commissioner’s office.
“I would suggest, having those skills and having that experience, they would also be aware that it’s not appropriate for them to assume the position,” Mr. Julian said. “We think somebody who is respectful of the important role the ethics commissioner plays should understand that that conflict does not enhance public confidence and shouldn’t move forward in that position.”
Since becoming Prime Minister in 2015, Mr. Trudeau has twice breached the federal Conflict of Interest Act. The first breach had to do with a 2016 family vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island, which the ethics commissioner found was a violation of rules against holders of public office accepting large gifts. The second was in 2019, when Mr. Trudeau pressed Jody Wilson-Raybould, who was then attorney-general, to help the engineering and construction company SNC-Lavalin strike a deal to avoid a trial over corruption charges.
Mr. LeBlanc has also been found to be in contravention of ethics laws during his time as a cabinet minister, and so has International Trade Minister Mary Ng.
Mr. Holland noted that Ms. Richard has been the “number two” in the ethics commissioner’s office throughout the Trudeau government’s tenure, a period when he said the office has “taken tough decisions and given tough directions.”
“Her commitment to her job is evident,” he said. “I don’t think anybody can look at the work of the ethics commissioner and think that they’ve been, you know, easy or light on our government.”