Peter Van Loan searches for an ethical standard

Regarding the Conflict of Interest Act and the PM's guide for ministers

Picking up where they left off yesterday, Charlie Angus and Peter Van Loan went another round this afternoon.

Charlie Angus. No wonder the Ethics Commissioner is fed up with these guys over here. We have a minister who was found guilty of breaking section 9 of the conflict of interest law, but rather than coming clean the Conservatives have been hiding behind loopholes, they have trolling the letters of opposition members to obscure the fact that he was found guilty. No wonder the Ethics Commissioner wants the power to be able to fine these cabinet ministers. A simple question, will the Conservatives support the Ethics Commissioner in her desire to strengthen the rules or are they going to try to gut the act to cover up for those insiders who are continually breaking the law? It is a simple question.

Peter Van Loan. Mr. Speaker, the other day I read a letter from the hon. member for Timmins—James Bay supporting AVR radio. It might be interesting to note that the president and executive vice-president of AVR actually made donations to the NDP in 2011. This letter, of May 18, 2012, went to the CRTC. He stands here as the ethics czar for the NDP and his main argument is that the NDP should be held to a lower standard of ethics than the Conservative MPs. Perhaps that is what Mary Dawson is talking about.

Once again, Mr. Van Loan seems to misunderstand the applicable rules of both the Conflict of Interest Act and his Prime Minister’s own guide for ministers and ministers of state.

Here again is the compliance order issued to the Finance Minister after his appeal to the CRTC on behalf of an easy-listening station. The ethics commissioner applied Section 9 of the Act and Annex H of the guide. Section 9 sets out that “no public office holder shall use his or her position as a public office holder to seek to influence a decision of another person so as to further the public office holder’s private interests or those of the public office holder’s relatives or friends or to improperly further another person’s private interests.” What’s the definition of a public office holder? Section 2 defines it as follows.

(a) a minister of the Crown, a minister of state or a parliamentary secretary;
(b) a member of ministerial staff;
(c) a ministerial adviser;
(d) a Governor in Council appointee, other than the following persons, namely,
(i) a lieutenant governor,
(ii) officers and staff of the Senate, House of Commons and Library of Parliament,
(iii) a person appointed or employed under the Public Service Employment Act who is a head of mission within the meaning of subsection 13(1) of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Act,
(iv) a judge who receives a salary under the Judges Act,
(v) a military judge within the meaning of subsection 2(1) of the National Defence Act, and
(vi) an officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, not including the Commissioner;
(d.1) a ministerial appointee whose appointment is approved by the Governor in Council; and
(e) a full-time ministerial appointee designated by the appropriate minister of the Crown as a public office holder.

You’ll note that the Finance Minister is a minister of the Crown and that nowhere in the definition is a member of parliament identified as a public office holder.

Annex H of the Prime Minister’s guide explains that “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.”

On those grounds, the ethics commissioner found that Mr. Flaherty had erred. Mr. Flaherty explained that his mistake was including his ministerial title under his name at the bottom of the letter, but, in scolding two parliamentary secretaries, the ethics commissioner later clarified that the actual use of the title wasn’t important. In other words, a minister or parliamentary secretary couldn’t pretend he or she was writing as only a member of parliament if they were otherwise a minister or parliamentary secretary.

Mr. Van Loan responses on Monday—see here and here—suggested Mr. Flaherty and the government were merely operating previously with a different interpretation of the Conflict of Interest Act (although there would still be the matter of the government’s own accountability guide). But beginning with his second response on Tuesday and continuing yesterday and today, the Government House Leader seems to be expressing confusion about the standard applied by the commissioner.

Or perhaps Mr. Van Loan means to suggest that the Act, which his government introduced, is illogical. In that regard, if the Harper government would like now to change the rules so that all MPs are banned from such writing letters to the tribunals like the CRTC, there is certainly a case to be made for such a change.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.