The federal ethics commissioner says MPs and public office holders have a “relatively shallow understanding” of the rules that govern conflict issues, and the key challenge of his office is explaining them to those individuals.
“Unlike me, they don’t spend their life thinking about these things,” Mario Dion told the Commons ethics committee Friday, adding his office is looking for better ways to provide guidance through videos, webinars and other measures.
Mr. Dion was referring to the Conflict of Interest Act, which is applicable to 2,900 appointed federal officials, and the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons, applicable to the 338 MPs. The term “public office holders” refers to such parties as cabinet ministers, ministers of state and parliamentary secretaries, as well as ministerial advisers and Governor-in-Council appointees.
Mr. Dion’s comments come after he cleared Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of conflict of interest in the WE scandal, involving the charity and the Canada Student Service Grant, but found former finance minister Bill Morneau broke the ethics law. At one point Friday, Mr. Dion pointed out Mr. Trudeau was not interviewed for the report, but provided an affidavit that the commissioner deemed acceptable.
Mr. Dion, named Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner in 2018, talked about the issue of comprehension of the rules when asked about the main challenge facing his office.
“I think our greatest challenge is to properly communicate, explain to MPs and to public office holders their obligations under the code and under the act,” he said, describing the documents as complex.
“The vast majority of people who are regulated by the act and the code have a relatively shallow understanding because it is complex.”
He said his office is trying to find better ways to provide guidance in documents on the web, videos and webinars.
The challenge is to “demystify, explain, vulgarize – I don’t know what other words to use to describe what I am trying to get at.”
“I believe each MP and public office holder is the first person responsible for making sure they comply with these instruments,” he said.
He said his office had 2,000 consultations by public office holders in the last fiscal year and 500 from MPs.
“But sometimes MPs call about things that are menial, and maybe don’t call about things that are really important. You need to have the reflex to identify those issues.”
The commissioner said he monitors progress in making more people aware of their responsibilities by measuring attendance at educational events his office organizes.
Mr. Dion occupies an office created 14 years ago. He is looking for a 2021-22 budget of $7.67-million, up $500,000 from 2019.
Since May, 2019, he told the committee he issued nine investigation reports under the act and four under the code.
He said requests for presentations dropped in 2020, but those for advice were up during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr. Dion was cautious in discussing aspects of his investigation of Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau, declining, for example, to address hypothetical questions. “My role as an agent of Parliament is to implement the law as it is, not the way some people wish it would be.”
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