It may be appropriate for a minister or parliamentary secretary to try to sway a government decision when it is a matter of importance to their constituents, says the federal ethics commissioner.

In issuing the new guidance, Mary Dawson says a cabinet member or parliamentary secretary might wish to speak out or make representations to another minister in the interests of their constituency, since they also have responsibilities as MPs.

However, before doing so, ministers and the parliamentary secretaries who assist them must consider whether they or their relatives or friends have private interests that could be advanced by such actions — a clear red flag.

In such cases, Dawson says in a notice posted on her website, they must refrain from intervening.

"There may be some cases, however, where, although there is a private interest involved, ministers or parliamentary secretaries may be permitted to intervene in their role as a member representing a constituency," she writes.

"These could include situations in which the matter is one of significant public interest or importance to their constituents."

The guidance was quietly issued recently following letters from a minister and several parliamentary secretaries to the federal broadcast regulator.

Scolded MPs

In February, Dawson admonished Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and two parliamentary secretaries — Eve Adams and Colin Carrie — for breaching the Conflict of Interest Act by writing letters to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in support of radio licence applications.

In a case earlier this month, Dawson did not sanction parliamentary secretary David Anderson for writing a letter to the CRTC urging more diversity in all-news offerings by cable and satellite television providers.

In cases where there is a "significant public interest," the competing factors must weighed and a decision taken as to whether an intervention would be permissible under the conflict law and the code of conduct for MPs, she writes.

Dawson says ministers and parliamentary secretaries — government MPs appointed to help ministers with their duties — may wish to seek advice from her in such cases.

The Conflict of Interest Act does not prohibit ministers and parliamentary secretaries, as MPs, or their Parliament Hill and constituency staff, from seeking factual information from federal organizations regarding matters such as the status of a case, the timing of a hearing or the information a constituent should submit, she says.

"However, in no case should their status as a minister or parliamentary secretary be used to influence the outcome of any process, for example by seeking to obtain a favourable decision or to have the case resolved on a priority basis."

Ministers and parliamentary secretaries may, in most cases, provide letters of support for projects in their riding for which federal funding is being requested, she adds. However, they cannot do so if the money is being requested from their own department or from an organization within their portfolio.