Jim Flaherty enjoys easy listening, possibly too much

Why the finance minister is taking heat for a possible conflict of interest

CP reports that the Finance Minister wrote a letter to the CRTC to express his “support” for the application for a radio license by a Durham company and that might be a problem.

The CRTC, which administers broadcasting and telecommunications, is among the federal agencies known as quasi-judicial tribunals — court-like bodies that make decisions at arm’s length from the government. Federal rules on ministerial responsibility, including interaction with such administrative bodies, are set out in Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State. The document, last updated by Stephen Harper’s government in December 2010, is posted on the prime minister’s website.

The rules say decisions made by administrative tribunals often concern individual rights or interests, are technical in nature or are “considered sensitive and vulnerable to political interference (such as broadcasting).” “Ministers must not intervene, or appear to intervene, with tribunals on any matter requiring a decision in their quasi-judicial capacity, except as permitted by statute.” The guide add that in all instances, even where the minister or cabinet has authority to send back or overturn decisions once made, as is the case with the CRTC, “it is inappropriate to attempt to influence the outcome of a specific decision of a quasi-judicial nature.”

You can view the letter here.

CP notes that David Collenette resigned as defence minister in 1996—here is the Maclean’s story from the time—after it was discovered that he had written to the Immigration and Refugee Board on behalf of a constituent.

In 1994, the Reform party called for the resignation of heritage minister Michel Dupuy after it was discovered that he had written to the CRTC on behalf of a constituent. Mr. Dupuy’s defence at the time seems to have rested on the idea that he had not meant to express support for the application, merely to advocate that it receive a fair hearing.

Mr. Speaker, last March I was approached at my constituency office by a constituent whom I had not met before and whom I have not met since, to write a letter drawing the attention of the CRTC to his application for a radio licence. I explained to this constituent that as minister responsible I could not interfere with the workings of the CRTC, but I agreed as his member of Parliament to do my best to ensure that he was treated fairly.

On March 15, I wrote to the chairman of the CRTC in my capacity as an MP for this constituent asking the commission to give the application a fair hearing. This was the letter of an MP seeking to ensure that a constituent received due process.

I wish to table the letter. The letter was not meant in any way to be an endorsement of the licence application, nor was it intended to exert pressure on the CRTC. I also understand that on March 30 the CRTC acknowledged my letter, categorizing it as a letter in support of the licence applicant. That acknowledgement letter was never brought to my attention. If it had been, I would have immediately rectified the matter.

As soon as I did learn that one of the interested parties wrote to me in September regarding my “alleged support” for the licence application, I took immediate corrective action. I wrote to the interested party, clarifying my earlier letter and clearing up any misunderstanding.

In this letter dated September 30, I wrote: ‘My letter of March 15, 1994 to the CRTC simply asked that due consideration be given to the application. It is not intended to convey support for or opposition to the application. The CRTC is the body mandated by law to make independent decisions on all such applications. It is therefore for the CRTC to weigh the merits of the arguments raised by the applicants and the interveners.’

In this case, Mr. Flaherty seems to have explicitly expressed support. Mr. Dupuy was shuffled out of cabinet a little over a year later and that precedent was cited in 2004 by Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy.

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