Critics are renewing calls for reforms to the appointment process for parliamentary watchdogs, as Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson begins her investigation into the prime minister’s use of a private helicopter in the Bahamas over the holidays, while the Liberal government weighs her future in the position.
NDP ethics critic Alexandre Boulerice (Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie, Que.) said although he’s optimistic Ms. Dawson will act impartially, lingering questions about whether she will seek another term as commissioner, a decision ultimately at the discretion of the prime minister and cabinet, makes for an “awkward” situation.
He said he hopes the commissioner has the “strength to work in full independence and autonomy,” but acknowledged that changes would be needed to prevent a similar scenario.
“How in the future can we avoid that situation where we don’t want them to act with some complacency with the prime minister because their job is depending on them?” Mr. Boulerice asked.
The establishment of an independent appointment process that would put the decision out of the hands of the prime minister is the “next step,” and worthy of consideration, he said.
Penny Collenette, adjunct professor with the University of Ottawa’s law school and director of appointments in the prime minister’s office during Jean Chrétien’s tenure, said calls for an independent commission to handle appointments has been the subject of a long-running debate, and there were both benefits and drawbacks to the concept.
But the Liberal government, she said, has gone a long way towards enhancing transparency and independence by creating the new advisory council for Senate appointments.
“Perhaps, one step at a time,” said Ms. Collenette, who also ran for the federal Liberals in the 2008 election.
Ms. Dawson announced last month that she would investigate if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) ran afoul of conflict of interest rules by accepting a ride on the Aga Khan’s private helicopter during a recent vacation to the religious leader’s private island in the Bahamas.
Questions, however, are being raised about her ability to thoroughly investigate the individual responsible for determining whether she continues to serve commissioner.
Originally appointed in 2007, Ms. Dawson’s term as commissioner lapsed in the summer, though the Liberal government extended it under an interim basis another six months until Jan. 8. In December, the Liberals extended her term an additional six months, beginning Jan. 9.
The government has placed a posting online seeking applicants for the commissioner’s job. It closed earlier this month.
Ms. Dawson has been tight-lipped about whether she has reapplied for the job, while the government has repeatedly extended the deadline for applications. The original deadline was last November.
Ms. Collenette said it’s “highly unlikely” the Trudeau government would recommend her reappointment given that she has been in the position for the past 10 years.
In response to earlier revelations that Mr. Trudeau awarded five dozen Liberal Party donors with invitations to a gala dinner in honour of the Chinese premier in the fall, Duff Conacher, co-founder of ethics watchdog Democracy Watch, wrote a letter to Ms. Dawson urging her to recuse herself from the investigation if she had reapplied for the job.
He also accused the prime minister and cabinet of being in a “clear conflict of interest” when choosing the next ethics watchdog, and called for the appointment to be made by a wholly independent commission.
A spokesperson for the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner’s office responded that Ms. Dawson has fulfilled her duties and responsibilities “diligently and impartially,” and will continue to do so while investigating Mr. Trudeau or in any other matter.
Jocelyne Brisebois, a communications officer with the commissioner’s office, argued the suggestion that the possibility of reappointment could influence Ms. Dawson “does not reflect an adequate understanding of the appointment process” for the commissioner, which requires consultation with the leaders of all recognized parties and the adoption of a resolution by the House.
This was mandated, specifically, she said, to assure the independence of the position.
When asked if Ms. Dawson will seek reappointment, Ms. Brisebois refused comment, saying it would have “no bearing on how she fulfills her duties and responsibilities.”
Ms. Collenette also argued that the structure of the appointment process meant it wasn’t entirely at the discretion of the prime minister, and defended Ms. Dawson as a “highly respected” public servant known for her “discretion and integrity.”
However, she said it would be helpful if Ms. Dawson could “clarify” whether she wishes to reapply, though she noted that she is under no legal obligation to do so.
“Given that the immediate ethical issue with the prime minister has to be resolved in an efficient manner, the timing is sensitive,” Ms. Collenette said, adding that there is likely only a small pool of people who could be considered for the job, as the criteria is “fairly onerous.”
Veteran lobbyist Greg MacEachern, a former Liberal staffer, argued that Ms. Dawson should be given the benefit of the doubt, as she’s uniquely qualified to gauge what constitutes a conflict of interest.
“She is actually the person that investigates conflict of interest, you’d want to think she has a good understanding of what is one,” he said.
“If we can’t trust her to be able to figure that out, she shouldn’t have been in the role in the first place.”
Nevertheless, he floated the concept of appointing a second-in-command to the commissioner to avoid these sorts of potential conflicts, and for the purpose of “continuity and experience.”
In terms of the probe into the Bahamas excursion, Mr. MacEachern said he believed the investigation would rest upon whether Mr. Trudeau, who travels with a robust security detail, is deemed to be covered under the exceptional circumstances clause.
The Conflict of Interest Act prohibits Crown ministers, parliamentary secretaries, their staff, and their families from accepting travel on non-commercial chartered or private aircraft for any purpose unless required in their capacity as a public office holder, except in exceptional circumstances or with prior approval from the ethics and conflict of interest commissioner.
Scott Thurlow, senior counsel with public affairs firm Temple Scott Associates, also dismissed complaints that Ms. Dawson may be in an ethical quandary, saying there’s a “cannon of interpretations to draw from that speak to her ability to do the job.”
If Ms. Dawson is seeking re-appointment, he said it’s an “unfair assumption” to suggest that either she, or her office, are “not taking appropriate steps to shield her from a conflict of interest.”
“It is a nefarious inference, which is not grounded in reality, that either impugns her character by suggesting that she isn’t taking the appropriate safeguards, or it infers that the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner’s office can’t deal with a conflict of interest,” he added.
“It is completely inappropriate to make either assumption.”
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