Please support democracy

Without your support, Democracy Watch can't win key changes to stop governments and big businesses from abusing their power and hurting you and your family. Please click here to support democracy now

Coalition calls for key changes to make MP ethics rules effective

Current code is so full of loopholes it should be called the “Almost Impossible to be in a Conflict of Interest Code”

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

OTTAWA – Today, Democracy Watch and the Government Ethics Coalition it coordinates, made up of 30 citizen groups from across Canada, is calling for key changes during testimony from 12 noon-1 pm before the House Procedure and House Affairs Committee to close huge loopholes in the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons that allow MPs to take part in most decisions even when they have a conflict of interest, and allow them to accept unethical gifts and favours, and is also calling for key measures to strengthen enforcement and penalties to discourage violations.

The Committee is conducting a long overdue review of the Code, which was enacted in 2004, is supposed to be reviewed every five years, was last reviewed in 2015, and before that in 2008 to 2009 , and before that in 2006-2007. The original version of the Code had loopholes in it, a weak enforcement system, and penalties that MPs themselves decide in a “kangaroo court” process, and past reviews by the Committee have added more loopholes, allowing for even more conflicts of interest and unethical favours, or have done nothing to close loopholes or strengthen penalties, and little to strengthen enforcement.

“The MP’s ethics code is so full of loopholes it should be called the Almost Impossible to be in a Conflict of Interest Code, the Ethics Commissioner doesn’t do basic enforcement actions like auditing MPs, and MPs decide whether to penalize other MPs which is a kangaroo court,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch. “The big question is whether MPs will finally close these loopholes, and strengthen enforcement and penalties, or will they again add more loopholes to their ethics code as they have after past reviews.”

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion has made six recommendations for changes to the MP Code (and also for nine other technical changes), and while they will all somewhat improve the Code, they completely ignore huge loopholes that allow for unethical decision-making by MPs, and do nothing to strengthen enforcement. As well, Ethics Commissioner Dion has made the self-contradictory claim that the Code is working well and doesn’t need to be reviewed, and issued several highly questionable rulings since he began in January 2018 that allowed clear violations of federal ethics rules. Democracy Watch has an ongoing case in the Federal Court of Appeal challenging Commissioner Dion’s weak ruling that Prime Minister Trudeau didn’t violate the Conflict of Interest Act when he approved the grant in June 2020 to WE Charity, for which his wife served as an ambassador at the time.

All of this is not surprising given Mr. Dion had a record of eight unethical and questionable actions when he was the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, and was handpicked by the Trudeau Cabinet through a secretive, dishonest process that the Federal Court of Appeal ruled was biased, and given the sister-in-law of Trudeau’s old friend and Cabinet Minister Dominic LeBlanc is the Ethics Commissioner’s senior lawyer (which may explain why the Ethics Commissioner has failed to issue a ruling on whether LeBlanc violated the ethics law by participating in the appointment process for judges in New Brunswick with financial and other connections to him.

“Ethics Commissioner Dion has failed to enforce federal ethics laws effectively, even when the law has been clearly violated, and also made self-contradictory, confusing and unclear statements about the rules,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch. “It’s clear that the only way to ensure federal ethics rules are enforced effectively is for MPs to require the Ethics Commissioner to investigate and issue a public ruling on every situation and complaint, and to impose a penalty for every violation.”

The 10 key changes needed to make the MP Code effective at preventing conflicts of interest and unethical gift and favour trading are as follows:

  1. Add a rule to require MPs and their staff to tell the truth to stop the misleading spin that regularly and fatally undermines reasonable policy debates and discussions, and another rule to prohibit MPs from switching parties in between elections except when their party leader violates the law or breaks significant election promises (and, generally, expand the Code to cover MPs as soon as their election is confirmed by Elections Canada, and to cover MP staff who, because they are not covered by the Code, can currently do the things that MPs are prohibited from doing on their MP’s behalf, and can also accept all gifts and favours);
  2. Close the huge loophole in the definition of “private interest” (in ss. 3(2) and (3)) to cover all conflicts of interest, not only specific financial conflicts, because the loophole means the Code doesn’t apply to 95% of decisions MPs participate in, and that allows them to take part in decisions when they, their family or friends can profit from the decision (and extend the Code to cover the private interests of extended family and friends of MPs and their staff);
  3. Prohibit MPs and their staff from having investments in businesses (which is allowed under ss. 17 and 24(3)(j)), and from having blind trusts, (both of which the Parker Commission recommended way back in 1987) and change s. 7 to prohibit them from other outside activities, because they create clear conflicts of interest (other than professional requirements like doctors who have to practise a specific amount each year in order to retain their licence);
  4. Require MPs to work full-time, and to disclose a summary of their work activities, including communications with anyone or any entity who is trying to influence their decisions, in an online, searchable database;
  5. Change the gifts and benefits rule to ban MPs and their staff from accepting anything from anyone (including volunteer assistance under ss. 3(1)), who is trying to influence their decisions because even small gifts influence decisions, and delete s. 15 of the Code to ban “sponsored travel” because it is an unethical gift and essentially a form of legalized bribery;
  6. Add a new rule (as a restriction on s. 5 of the Code) to prohibit MPs from giving preferential treatment to anyone who has given them a gift or assisted them in any way;
  7. Require MPs to disclose in the Public Registry their assets and liabilities worth more than $1,000 (the current disclosure requirement is for everything worth more than $10,000, which is much too high), and to disclose details about their past five year’s work before they became an MP to make it easy to track which organizations and issues they have ties to, and to disclose in the Public Registry which members of their extended family they have close relationships with including being aware of their business, investments and other private interests;
  8. Prohibit MPs and their staff from communicating with their former colleagues and government officials for a sliding-scale time period after they leave depending on what positions and committees they served in and how close their relationships are with Cabinet ministers, officials etc., and require them to disclose their post-activities online during this time period in a searchable database;
  9. Require MPs and their staff to take a formal training course when they first start their position, and annually, and require the Ethics Commissioner to publish online a summary of his/her advice each time advice is given that covers a new situation to any person covered by the Code, and to publish online all advisory opinions and guidelines issued by the Commissioner, and require the Ethics Commissioner to regularly conduct an audit of a randomly selected sample of MPs’ financial statements and activities;
  10. Give members of the public, who employ and pay all MPs and their staff, the right to file a complaint with the Ethics Commissioner, and require the Commissioner to investigate and issue a public ruling on every complaint and situation s/he becomes aware of, and to impose a sliding scale of penalties depending the seriousness of the violation, and add a rule that anyone is allowed to challenge any decision by the Commissioner in court.

Many other changes are needed to the Conflict of Interest Act (which applies to Cabinet ministers, staff and appointees), and to other federal laws, including the whistleblower protection law, to stop unethical actions, wealthy interests, secret, unethical lobbying, and excessive government secrecy overall, from undermining good public policy-making.

– 30 –

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

Democracy Watch’s Government Ethics Campaign