Confict-of-interest absurdity cries out for change to the law

There’s room for honest disagreement about whether the government’s recent advertising blitz touting the benefits of its economic plan was really designed to promote the Conservative Party of Canada.

So it was never a slam-dunk that Mary Dawson, the federal conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, was going to rule that the ads violated the law forbidding government spending to further private interests. Dawson was asked to examine the matter by Liberal MP Martha Hall Findlay in a complaint filed last October.

But even to those who think these particular ads didn’t cross the line into taxpayer-funded partisanship, Dawson’s reason for dropping the matter this week should be cause for alarm. She said the law in question does nothing to stop public office holders from using their positions to the advantage of their political parties.

Of course that sounds absurd. After all, the Conflict of Interest Act, the law that prevents misuse of public office for private gain, forbids government officials from using their positions to “improperly further another person’s private interests.”

But Dawson tells us that, under law, the word “person” is “conventionally understood to include both an individual and a corporation (legal person).” A political party is neither; it’s an association. Thus, she decided to halt her examination of Hall Findlay’s complaint “on the basis that the Conservative Party of Canada is not a person.”

It’s a staggering bit of reasoning. It’s hard to believe the act was drafted with that technical limitation in mind. If Dawson is right, the Conflict of Interest Act must be amended immediately (well, as soon as Parliament sits again) to specify that illegal conflicts can arise not just with respect to individuals and companies, but also any sort of association, including, of course, a political party.

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