Avoiding future conflicts

MARY JANIGAN March 7 1988

Avoiding future conflicts

MARY JANIGAN March 7 1988

Avoiding future conflicts


For more than three years accusations of scandal and patronage beset the federal Conservative government. As a result, when a Quebec jury acquitted former cabinet minister André Bissonnette on Feb. 23 on charges of breach of trust, fraud and conspiracy, a jubilant Prime Minister Brian Mulroney went on the offensive against his critics. He introduced long-promised conflict-of-interest legislation that would subject all members of Parliament to detailed scrutiny before a new Conflict of Interest Commission. But he defiantly told reporters that the proposals were necessary to protect government members from accusations from the media and the opposition. Declared Mulroney:

“If somebody has an allegation of conflict of interest, a third party will impartially make that determination, not a bunch of howling people on the floor .of the House of Commons.”

The proposed legislation would entrust the contentious problem of conflict of interest to a three-member commission that would examine disclosure statements from all MPs and senators. The commission would then recommend how each member should handle all assets and liabilities to avoid potential conflicts of interest. For Liberal Leader John Turner and New Democratic Party Leader Ed Broadbent, the 30-page bill was a limited attempt to tackle a far-reaching problem. For a handful of Conservative backbenchers, it was an unwelcome intrusion into their personal affairs. But for Mulroney, the proposal was the only way to handle a vexing problem which has haunted his party—and poisoned

the atmosphere in the Commons. “This is the price you have to pay,” Mulroney declared flatly. “This is a climate that has given rise to new requirements.”

The Prime Minister refused to accept responsibility for creating that climate. Although eight of his ministers have resigned or been fired amid unsettling accusations since the Tories took power in September, 1984, Mulroney insisted that opposition MPs and the media created the “climate of insinuation, smear and innuendo.” As a result, although his government had “the best intentions and the best directives in the world,” he said that he had to introduce new rules to deal with biased reports.

“You seem to be the only people who don’t understand how tough and unfair it has been,” he told reporters during an illtempered confrontation shortly after the bill was introduced. “You don’t realize how disconnected you are in many ways from the reality of the ordinary guy in the street who’s fed up with these premature judgments and wants fairness.”

In an attempt to ensure fairness, the bill replaces the 1985 conflict-of-interest code with legislation—and it goes beyond ministers and parliamentary secretaries to embrace all MPs and senators. Within 60 days of their appointment or the official announcement of their election, the legislators would be required to submit detailed personal information about themselves, their spouses and their dependents to the registrar of the proposed Conflict of Interest Commission. That statement would include the description and the value of all their assets and liabilities, the amount and sources of their income, and a list of all activities and positions they held during the preceding 12 months.

The commission, in turn, would scrutinize those statements, taking into account each member’s responsibilities. According to the bill, a conflict of interest would arise when an MP or senator “has significant private interests that afford the opportunity for the member to benefit, whether directly or indirectly, as a result of any office of the member.” To avoid potential conflict, the commission could recommend action ranging from disposal of the controversial asset or liability to the establishment of a trust to administer the member’s interests.

When a parliamentarian complied, the commission would issue a public declaration of his or her “permitted private assets”—and certify that the member had complied with the act. But that declaration would not likely include full disclosure of each individual’s assets. The law would allow the com-

missioners to balance “the public interest in disclosure and the interest in maintaining reasonable privacy.”

The commission would function as an independent body reporting to Parliament and appointed by cabinet after consultation among all three federal parties. It could launch its own inqui-

ries—or investigate at the request of the Prime Minister, the Senate or the Commons. If it concluded that a legislator was guilty of misconduct, the Senate or the Commons—not the commission—would impose a penalty that could include a reprimand, compensation for damages or a fine of up to $20,000. MPs could even expel an offending member from the Commons by declaring that his seat was vacant. Senators could merely request the resignation of an offending colleague—because of constitutional restrictions on the removal of senators.

Both opposition leaders claimed that the bill would not do enough to prevent conflicts of interest. Broadbent demanded a detailed definition of the term “conflict of interest” to replace the simple description in the bill. “What this means is they are leaving themselves open to all kinds of disputes, interpretations [and] innuendos in the future as to what a conflict of interest means,” he said. And Turner called for laws to cover such activities as government contracts, federal advertising and patronage appointments to all major posts.

Other parliamentarians complained that the bill goes too far by applying stringent conflict-of-interest requirements to ordinary MPs. Although a handful of Tory backbenchers criticized it privately, only maverick Conservative Alex Kindy (Calgary East) declared publicly that it would discourage worthy applicants from entering politics. A senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office swiftly responded that the Conservatives are angered by Kindy’s frank talk—and contrary stands. Then,

in a thinly veiled warning that the MP would encounter opposition if he tried to run for the Conservatives in the next election, the official added: “I just wish Alex Kindy luck at his nominating convention.”

The government’s determination stems from the fact that scandals have often overwhelmed the Mulroney government’s accomplishments. In fact, conflict-of-interest difficulties affected three ministers who resigned or were fired since 1984. In 1986 former industry minister Sinclair Stevens resigned his cabinet post—but kept his seat in the Commons—amid serious allegations of conflict of interest. Last December, after eight months of gruelling hearings, Ontario Supreme Court Justice William Parker concluded that Stevens had violated the guidelines on 14 occasions. Stevens is appealing that ruling.

In January, 1987, Mulroney fired Bissonnette from the cabinet following reports of irregularities in a complex land deal in his riding. Then, early last month, Mulroney dropped Michel Côté as supply and services minister when he learned that he had not declared a $250,000 loan from a close friend. That friend, René Laberge, controlled companies that received more than $2.4 million in federal contracts since 1981.

PMO officials frankly acknowledged last week that they were torn between their desire to curb those alleged infractions—and their need to recruit good candidates who might be deterred by the stringent disclosure requirements. In his report on Stevens, Parker concluded that “public disclosure should be the cornerstone of a modern conflict-of-interest code.” Ontario, in turn, has adopted a code that requires full public disclosure. But Mulroney stopped short of those tough measures when he proposed that the new commission be allowed to decide whether it would preserve the privacy of members.

That discretion drew guarded criticism from former Liberal cabinet minister Mitchell Sharp, the co-chairman of a 1984 federal task force on conflict of interest. Sharp said that the bill would grant too much discretion—and not enough guidance—to the commissioners. And he noted the absence of requirements for full public disclosure. But then the former minister added, “No regime can be established which legislates honesty.” It was a brutal point that Mulroney also noted last week in a reflective moment. “It does not change the bottom line,” he said. “The bottom line is individual responsibility and personal integrity and reliability.”