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Watchdog petitions Federal Court to kill new appointments for lobbying, ethics commissioners

By Marco Vigliotti      

Democracy Watch has filed lawsuits in Federal Court challenging the appointments of Mario Dion as ethics commissioner and Nancy Belanger as lobbying commissioner, on the grounds that the Trudeau government did not meet the standards for proper consultations with opposition parties stipulated in federal legislation.

Mario Dion, left, and Nancy Belanger, right, were appointed ethics and lobbying commissioners, respectively, late last year after a lengthy selection process that spanned months.
The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade

An ethics watchdog is suing the Trudeau government for the way it handled appointments for the lobbying and ethics commissioners, saying the Liberals failed to honour legislative requirements mandating consultations with all parties recognized in the House of Commons. 

Democracy Watch announced on Jan. 18 that it had filed lawsuits in Federal Court challenging the appointments of Mario Dion as ethics commissioner and Nancy Bélanger as lobbying commissioner on the grounds that opposition parties were not adequately consulted during the nomination process. 

It also claimed that the entire federal cabinet was in a conflict of interest in making the appointments because both of the commissioner offices were actively investigating a number of cases involving the prime minister or other cabinet ministers.

“The Trudeau cabinet failed to consult with opposition party leaders, as required by law, before appointing the new ethics commissioner and lobbying commissioner, and both commissioners were investigating situations involving Trudeau or other ministers so the cabinet had a clear conflict of interest when making the appointments of these key democracy watchdogs,” Duff Conacher, Democracy Watch co-founder and adjunct professor of law and political science at the University of Ottawa, said in a statement.

“Given it is essential that ethics and lobbying watchdogs are independent and impartial, Democracy Watch hopes the court will overturn both appointments and establish high standards to prevent conflicts of interest, and also require meaningful consultation with opposition parties, for all future watchdog appointments.”

Mr. Conacher applied for the lobbying commissioner’s job.

The federal cabinet has the authority to appoint the lobbying and ethics commissioners. However, the Parliament of Canada Act requires cabinet to consult with the leader of each recognized party in the House of Commons on the appointment of the ethics commissioner, while the Lobbying Act requires the same for the lobbying commissioner appointment. 

The appointment of the ethics commissioner must still be approved by a resolution of the House, while the appointment of the lobbying commissioner has to be approved by the House and Senate.

The Liberal government publicly introduced the new ethics and lobbying commissioners in mid-December after what it claimed was an open and transparent appointment process that included consultation with the major opposition parties.

The Conservatives and NDP, though, disputed claims that they were adequately consulted, saying the Liberals only put forward a single nominee for each post, and simply offered a brief seven-minute interview with the prospective appointees.

NDP MP and party ethics critic Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C.) described consultations on the new commissioners as a “sham,” and accused the prime minister of failing to respect legislation mandating cooperation with opposition parties.

“It was an insult to the idea of consultation,” he told The Hill Times. 

“They said this is the one person we’re looking at, we’re going to hire them, we’re not going to tell you who else we looked at, and that’s it.”

However, Mr. Cullen said he did not support removing the commissioners from their posts, and was now turning his attention to how he could work best with the new watchdogs.

He said it was “unfair” for Ms. Bélanger and Mr. Dion to have their legitimacy questioned through no fault of their own, though argued that issues with the appointment process must be aired.

The selections of the new ethics and lobbying watchdogs ended months of speculation about the future of the roles, with the Trudeau government drawing criticism for repeatedly extending the terms of Ms. Dawson and former lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd over 2016 and 2017, on account of the lack of replacements.

The controversy over appointing new commissioners was intensified by politically sensitive investigations launched by the offices involving the prime minister and other cabinet members. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) even recused himself from the process of appointing the new ethics commissioner because of the office’s investigation of his vacation to the Aga Khan’s private island in 2016, handing off the responsibility to Government House Leader Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.). 

Democracy Watch claims that at the time of Mr. Dion’s appointment on Dec. 14, the ethics commissioner’s office was investigating, at the very least, the following four cases involving Mr. Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.):

  • Mr. Trudeau’s vacation to the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas in 2016
  • Mr. Morneau’s sale of shares in his family firm Morneau Shepell in Nov. 2015
  • Mr. Morneau’s involvement in legislation impacting pensions, Bill C-27, while still holding shares in Morneau Shepell, a human resources services and technology company that manages pensions
  • And finally, Mr. Morneau’s failure to disclose publicly when he had recused himself from decision-making processes because of conflicts of interest.

Then-ethics commissioner Mary Dawson ruled late last month that Mr. Trudeau breached conflict of interest rules by vacationing on the Aga Khan’s private island, rejecting the prime minister’s argument that the “gift” was acceptable because the religious leader fell under the close friends exemption.

Earlier this month, Ms. Dawson cleared Mr. Morneau of any wrongdoing related to the share sale, concluding that the introduction of a high-income tax hike that could be seen as negatively impacting the share price was announced publicly weeks before the sale.

The ethics commissioner’s office is still investigating Mr. Morneau’s involvement in introducing the pension legislation.

Democracy Watch also claims that the lobbying commissioner’s office was investigating the following four separate cases involving Mr. Trudeau and members of cabinet, when Ms. Bélanger was appointed commissioner, also on Dec. 14.

  • A fundraising event attended by Justin Trudeau and hosted by late Apotex chairman Barry Sherman. Apotex has registered to lobby the Prime Minister’s Office
  • A fundraiser in Aug. 2014 attended by Mr. Trudeau hosted by a Clearwater Seafoods co-founder and board member. Clearwater is also registered to lobby the PMO
  • Mr. Sherman’s assistance in selling tickets for a fundraising event that Mr. Morneau attended. Apotex was also registered to lobby Finance Canada
  • Council of Canadian Innovators staff lobbying senior officials at Global Affairs Canada after working on Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s (University Rosedale, Ont.) 2015 election campaign. 

The lobbying commissioner’s office, though, has no authority to investigate MPs or cabinet ministers. It’s responsible for regulating those lobbying the federal government and designated public office holders. As such, the investigations would be centred on those lobbying government, not the public office holders being targeted.

The Prime Minister’s Office was unable to respond by deadline.


The Hill Times 

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