Allow public to bring forward conflict allegations against MLAs, says commissioner

P.E.I.'s Conflict of Interest Commissioner says members of the public should have the ability to come forward with allegations of a conflict of interest against an MLA, and the commissioner should have the power to conduct an inquiry if he feels the complaint may be valid.

P.E.I.’s Conflict of Interest Commissioner says law should be changed to allow members of the public to report

P.E.I.'s Conflict of Interest Commissioner John McQuaid is asking MLAs to implement a number of changes to the Conflict of Interest Act. (CBC)

In his first annual report as P.E.I.'s Conflict of Interest Commissioner, retired justice John McQuaid has recommended a number of significant changes to the legislation that determines when MLAs are in a conflict of interest.

Chief among those changes, McQuaid said members of the public should have the ability to come forward with allegations of a conflict against an MLA, and the commissioner should have the power to conduct an inquiry if he feels the complaint may be valid.

"It just gives the public an opportunity to be more involved. It won't be a straightforward process... there would be a requirement for the member of the public to substantiate the circumstances that might require an investigation by the commissioner by way of filing an affidavit and giving detailed information," said McQuaid in the report.

Currently, only members of the Legislative Assembly are able to ask the commissioner's opinion as to whether an MLA may be in contravention of the Conflict of Interest Act.

Allowing the public to request an opinion of the commissioner could allow for "greater accountability by members to the public," McQuaid wrote in his 2015 annual report.

McQuaid said a number of other provinces allow this, including Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Under McQuaid's proposed changes to P.E.I.'s Conflict of Interest Act, a member of the public would be required to set out the details of the alleged contravention of the act in an affidavit and would be required to refrain from making the allegation public until the MLA in question had been informed.

If the commissioner determined the request "was not frivolous, vexatious or unmeritorious, an inquiry would be commenced following the procedure presently set forth in the Act."

McQuaid is recommending a number of other changes to P.E.I.'s Conflict of Interest Act, including:

  • An increase in the so-called "cooling off" period that prevents former cabinet ministers from accepting work related to their prior portfolios to 12 months from six.
  • Decreasing the maximum value of gifts or personal benefits MLAs are allowed to accept without declaring them to the commissioner to $200 per year from $500.
  • Clarifying what constitutes a "private interest" under the Act, in terms of when MLAs should recuse themselves from decision-making.

Another change he's asking MLAs to implement is that the Act be reviewed by MLAs after every election.

McQuaid said P.E.I.'s Conflict of Interest Act hasn't been amended since it was introduced in 1999.

In the report he notes that P.E.I.'s conflict legislation was modeled after Ontario's act. But Ontario has amended its legislation since it was copied by P.E.I. in 1999. In fact, McQuaid notes conflict rules in all jurisdictions have been evolving.

"I think it's important for the integrity of the institution, of the Legislative Assembly. That's really what's at stake here, is a set of guidelines, a set of guideposts which gives the public some confidence that members are living by proper ethical standards. That's why it's important to keep this legislation current."

Premier Wade MacLauchlan named McQuaid acting conflict commissioner in March 2015, an appointment which was later made permanent by the Legislative Assembly. The previous commissioner Neil Robinson had resigned days previously over allegations he himself had been in conflict over an investment he made in a company connected to the province's controversial plan to regulate e-gaming.

In a statement from the premier's office, MacLauchalan said the government appreciated the work of the conflict-of-interest commissioner and is reviewing his annual report and the recommendations that were submitted to the legislative assembly. 

"It is worth noting that shortly after forming government, conflict-of-interest requirements, including post-employment requirements, were strengthened for deputy ministers and senior political advisors," MacLauchalan said in the statement.

Green Party leader Peter Bevan-Baker said in e-mail to CBC that he certainly had no issue with any of McQuaid's recommendations. 

"They all seem like reasonable and welcome changes to me. I've always felt that being the smallest province, with arguably the greatest opportunity for nepotism and cronyism, that we need the most stringent conflict of interest rules and regulations," wrote Bevan-Baker.


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