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Democracy Watch files complaint with Ethics Commissioner to stop Trudeau Cabinet from appointing their own ethics and lobbying watchdogs

If Ethics Commissioner has applied to be reappointed, she is in a financial conflict of interest and must delegate ruling on complaint to provincial ethics commissioner

Ethics Commissioner Dawson’s enforcement record since 2007 is so bad it would be tragic if she was reappointed even for another six-month term, let alone for 7 years

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

OTTAWA – Today, Democracy Watch sent a letter to federal Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson calling for a ruling that Prime Minister Trudeau and his Cabinet cannot appoint the new Ethics Commissioner or Commissioner of Lobbying in January because they are in a conflict of interest given both commissioner offices are currently investigating them for violations of the federal ethics and lobbying laws.

Both commissioners terms end in early January, and if Trudeau and his Cabinet reappoint either commissioner for a six-month interim term or a new seven-year term they will be choosing their own ethics and lobbying watchdogs. They have a conflict of interest when they make that choice, a conflict compounded by the fact that the Ethics Commissioner and the Commissioner of Lobbying are both investigating situations right now in which Trudeau and his Cabinet ministers are alleged to have violated the Conflict of Interest Act or had a relationship with a lobbyist that violates the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct.

“It’s a conflict of interest for Prime Minister Trudeau and his Cabinet to choose their own ethics and lobbying watchdogs, especially when they are being investigated by those watchdogs,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch.

Democracy Watch requested that the Ethics Commissioner disclose whether she has applied to be reappointed by Trudeau, and if she has to refer the complaint to an independent decision-maker (such as a provincial ethics commissioner) because she is in a conflict of interest. The deadline for applying to be Ethics Commissioner passed at the end of November, and then was extended by the Liberal Cabinet. The extension came after the deadline passed, so Commissioner Dawson must know whether she is applying to be reappointed.

“The public has a right to know if Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson has applied to be reappointed for another term, and if she has she is in a conflict of interest and can’t rule on any situation involving Prime Minister Trudeau and his Cabinet because they will decide whether she gets to keep her job,” said Conacher. “If she has applied to Trudeau’s Cabinet to keep her job she must refer all complaints about the Trudeau Cabinet to an independent decision-maker like a provincial ethics commissioner.”

As detailed in the letter it has sent to the Ethics Commissioner, Democracy Watch’s position is that, based on the main purpose of the Conflict of Interest Act of preventing conflicts of interests and resolving them in the public interest (section 3), Prime Minister Trudeau and his Cabinet will violate the following sections of the Conflict of Interest Act if they choose the next Ethics Commissioner and Commissioner of Lobbying:

  1. section 4 which states that a public office holder is in a conflict of interest when s/he exercises “an official power, duty or function that provides an opportunity to further his or her private interests,” and;
  2. section 6 which prohibits making or participating in a decision when in conflict of interest.

Democracy Watch proposes that the solution is to have a fully independent commission whose members are approved by all federal party leaders do a public, non-partisan merit-based search for the next Ethics Commissioner and Commissioner of Lobbying, and to require the Trudeau Cabinet to choose from a short-list of candidates that the commission nominates, with approval still by the House of Commons.

To stop patronage and cronyism, and the appointment of weak government watchdogs and law enforcement officers, Democracy Watch has called for this change to the process for all Cabinet appointments in its Stop Bad Government Appointments Campaign. Ontario uses this appointment system to appoint provincial judges, and it is considered to be a world-leading process.

Democracy Watch also urged federal politicians not to reappoint Ethics Commissioner Dawson given how negligently weak her enforcement record has been since 2007. “It would be tragic if Ethics Commissioner Dawson was reappointed because it would mean Canadians would have to wait even longer for effective enforcement of the federal government ethics rules,” said Conacher. (See Backgrounder below for details)

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Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch
Tel: (613) 241-5179
Cell: 416-546-3443
[email protected]

Democracy Watch’s Government Ethics Campaign and Money in Politics Campaign


1. Federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson’s weak enforcement record

Federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson has had a very weak enforcement record since 2007, including (as of June 2015) making 149 secret rulings, issuing only 25 public rulings, and letting 75 (94%) of people who clearly violated ethics rules off the hook.

Because of section 66 added to the then-new Conflict of Interest Act by the Conservatives in 2006, the Ethics Commissioner’s rulings cannot be challenged in court if she has factual or legal errors in her rulings. If this section had not been added to the Act, Democracy Watch would have challenged several of Commissioner Dawson’s rulings since 2007 in court.

Democracy Watch is currently challenging Ethics Commissioner Dawson’s use of conflict-of-interest screens in court on the basis that the screens are unlawful.

2. Conflict of Interest Act missing key rules and accountability measures

The Conservatives broke a 2006 election promise (one of their many broken accountability promises) to include key ethics rules in the new Conflict of Interest Act prohibiting dishonesty and being in even an appearance of a conflict of interest, as Prime Minister Harper instead put those rules in his Accountable Government code for ministers and other senior officials so he could ignore the rules (as he did until the Conservatives were defeated in the 2015 election – see especially the rules in Annex A, Part 1 of the code).

The Liberals made no promises in their 2015 election platform to close the huge loopholes in the Conflict of Interest Act (and they also made no promises to close the huge loopholes in the Lobbying Act or the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act). Instead, Prime Minister Trudeau re-named and re-issued the Accountability Government code as his Open and Accountable Government code. He has ignored the rules in his code just like Prime Minister Harper did.