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Federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion. (Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail)
Federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion. (Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail)

New ethics watchdog asking for sweeping new powers Add to ...

Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion is asking MPs for sweeping new powers, suggesting he should be able to impose publication bans on the media, suspend parliamentarians from sitting in the House of Commons and impose hefty fines in the range of $25,000.

The new commissioner, who has been on the job for a month, vowed that he intends to be a “tougher” watchdog than his predecessor, Mary Dawson, who held the position for more than a decade.

In an appearance Thursday before the Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics, Mr. Dion presented his initial thoughts of how MPs could improve the ethics code and legislation enforced by his office.

Mr. Dion expressed particular concern with the fact that MPs currently tell the media when they’ve filed a complaint and also share details when the commissioner’s office later confirms to them that an investigation has been launched.

“It pollutes the environment within which we have to do our examination,” he said. “For many Canadians, an allegation that a public office holder has contravened the act is tantamount to a finding of a contravention.”

In response, Mr. Dion proposed that he should have the power to issue confidentiality orders to prevent MPs from informing the public about a complaint and preventing the media from reporting on an investigation, even if details are obtained through anonymous sources.

The focus on confidentiality prompted questions from Liberal, Conservative and NDP MPs during the hearing.

“Sometimes the media, they get a hold of something. How on earth would you manage the media if they’re breaking that confidentiality rule? Is it possible?” asked NDP MP Irene Mathyssen.

“Anything is possible in a statute, but it has to be carefully looked at. So you could actually prohibit the media from broadcasting. It may be legal. It may not be constitutional. It has to be looked at, basically,” Mr. Dion replied. “Freedom of expression, freedom of the press – is it sufficiently important to justify an exception under Section 1 of the Charter? It would have to be looked at by the Department of Justice. But conceivably, it could be done.”

Section 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees a set of rights, including freedom of the press and other media, “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

In a brief interview following his appearance, Mr. Dion said his proposals were meant as suggested topics for debate by MPs. He said publication bans are sometimes used in court and could potentially be imposed to prevent the media from reporting on investigations by his office.

“It complicates our lives as investigators when people start to know that something is under investigation. That’s all,” he said. “Limiting the media’s authority is a very touchy subject matter to start with.”

Conservative MP Peter Kent, a former journalist who sits on the committee, said afterword that he would not support giving the commissioner powers to impose publication bans.

“I think that would be unacceptable,” he said. “Any number of investigations by the ethics commissioner are actually undertaken because of media coverage …I think protections of free speech, journalistic practice, need to be defended and balanced.”

Other suggestions proposed by Mr. Dion include clearing up conflict-of-interest rules so that ministers can no longer avoid scrutiny by holding assets indirectly, as was done by Finance Minister Bill Morneau. The minister is currently the subject of an ethics commissioner investigation into whether he was in a conflict when he introduced a pension reform bill while still holding a large number of shares in his former company, Morneau Shepell, which is in the pension management business.

Mr. Dion also proposed doing away with a clause that allows public office holders to accept gifts from friends, which was the defence used unsuccessfully by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when the ethics commissioner ruled last year that he should not have accepted a family trip to the Aga Khan’s private island.

“Who is a friend, who isn’t a friend?” Mr. Dion asked. “It’s too subjective and it’s not currently defined in any way, shape or form.”

There are currently no penalties associated with the vast majority of the existing ethics rules and Mr. Dion said the status quo of “naming and shaming” is not enough to instill public confidence in the process. He said MPs should debate potential consequences, such as fines.

“I think a million [dollars] would be ridiculous and I think $100 would be ridiculous as well. So where does it lay? I’ve thought about $10,000. It could be $25,000,” he said. The House could also impose other sanctions, he said, such as a temporary ban from the House of Commons.

“We’ll probably be a bit tougher than my predecessor was when it comes to penalties,” he said.

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