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Ex-ethics commissioner Dawson calls for removal of friends exemption in Conflict of Interest Act

'There’s no way a friend should always obviate the obligation under section 11. The real test should be: could it reasonably be seen to influence you?'

Outgoing ethics commissioner Mary Dawson arrives to testify at the House Ethics Committee on Jan. 10. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

PUBLISHED :Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018 4:59 PM

Former ethics commissioner Mary Dawson is voicing support for eliminating an exemption in federal ethics rules allowing public office holders to accept gifts from close friends and relatives that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unsuccessfully used to justify his decision to vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island in 2016.

Appearing before the House Ethics Committee on Wednesday, Ms. Dawson said she didn’t believe the existence of a friendship was reason enough to free public office holders from rules barring them from accepting gifts that could reasonably be seen as placing them in a possible conflict of interest.

“In the act, there’s no way a friend should always obviate the obligation under section 11. The real test should be: could it reasonably be seen to influence you?” she told committee members. 

“I’m not sure if it’s helpful to have that exception in the act as I look at this whole situation.”

  

Ms. Dawson appeared before the committee to discuss a report she released last month while still serving as ethics commissioner that ruled Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) contravened the Conflict of Interest Act by accepting a trip to the religious leader’s Bahamian island. The trip was problematic because the Aga Khan’s charitable foundation is registered to lobby the federal government.

Mr. Trudeau defended the trip on the grounds that the Aga Khan was considered a “close friend,” and was thus exempted under the Conflict of Interest Act. However, Ms. Dawson concluded in her Dec. 20 report that the religious leader did not qualify as a close friend. 

Before the committee meeting on Wednesday, Ms. Dawson acknowledged that eliminating the exemption wasn’t one of the dozens of recommendations she suggested in her five-year review report in 2013, but is “one that’s occurred to me since.”

Defining “friend” in relation to the provisions of the act, she said, is problematic because of the subjective nature of the term. 

  

Ms. Dawson pointed to the House of Commons Members’ Code as a blueprint for future reforms to the Conflict of Interest Act, as it doesn’t include an exemption for friends. 

Nevertheless, Ms. Dawson, whose decade-long tenure as ethics commissioner concluded on Monday, largely refrained from sharply criticizing Mr. Trudeau during the course of her two-hour long testimony, and mostly deferred on questions from opposition members seeking her opinion of the prime minister’s conduct.

When asked by Conservative MP Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.) whether the prime minister has a duty and responsibility to address his fellow MPs by appearing before the House Ethics Committee, Ms. Dawson said that decision was up to his fellow parliamentarians. 

After the meeting, she told reporters that finding Mr. Trudeau had breached ethics rules was “unfortunate…for him, for us, for everything.”

  

“I mean it happens. People make mistakes,” she explained, noting that “some of the rules are not easy.”

Ms. Dawson also said she didn’t believe Parliament needed to institute penalties for individuals found to have violated the act, arguing public knowledge and the looming prospect of facing re-election was “sufficient to encourage compliance.”

At the end of the committee meeting, Mr. Kent quickly proposed a motion to invite the prime minister once again to appear before the committee, this time to also discuss the two hours of testimony Ms. Dawson had given. After a brief debate, the Liberal majority defeated the motion by a six to three margin. 

Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Mr. Kent said he was “quite impressed” with Ms. Dawson’s “openness and willingness to address questions,” and that her testimony only burnishes the argument that Mr. Trudeau should appear before the committee.

“I can think of no more appropriate setting … serene, respectful, not hectoring,” he added.

jlim@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times