Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet members have until the end of today to file a confidential report drilling down into their assets, debts and activities under federal ethics rules.

Within 60 days of their appointment, federal ministers, parliamentary secretaries and their senior staff must fill out a 20-page questionnaire that covers everything from the size of their mortgage and line of credit to the value of any art collection, antiques, vehicles and properties.

But Canadians won't get much insight into their wealth status. Reports that will ultimately be published online are summaries without specific financial figures included.

Ethics watchdog Mary Dawson 20130211

Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson and her team of advisers will be working with new cabinet ministers to help them avoid conflict-of-interest violations. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Anyone who fails to meet today's deadline could face a fine of up to $500, but there are no sanctions for actually breaking Conflict of Interest Act rules.

"There are penalties under the act that are available, but only if you miss deadlines. There are no penalties for contravening the act," Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson told CBC News. "So that's sort of odd. On the other hand, I'm not a hawk for high penalties. I think the disclosure and reports does the trick." 

'Name and shame'

While other jurisdictions impose hefty fines for ethical breaches, Dawson said Canada's system of public disclosure requirements and "name and shame" for breaches generally works.

"We have quite a different system than the [United] States for example. Many of the states have very high penalties for conflict of interest. I wouldn't necessarily propose that."

Duff Conacher

Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher says conflict-of-interest rules are too lax and not strictly enforced. (The Canadian Press)

Each public office holder is assigned an adviser from Dawson's office who will scrutinize the reports and suggest steps to take over the next 60 days to ensure compliance with the act.

But Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch and a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa, said the current system lacks in transparency and has weak enforcement of lax rules.

"The declarations are not enough at all to avoid conflict of interest," he said. "The Conflict of Interest Act has a huge loophole that allows federal cabinet ministers, their staff and their appointees to take part in decisions in which they have a financial interest and to profit from their decisions."

Conacher believes public office holders should be required to publicly disclose their financial holdings, and to sell them off if they cause even the "appearance" of a conflict of interest.

Blind trust arrangements — where the public office holder turns over administration and management of private business interests to a third party to avoid conflict of interest — are a "sham" because the individual can choose their own trustee and knows what is in the trust, Conacher said.

Divesting controlled assets through a blind trust or selling them off through an arm's-length transaction are among the various recommendations Dawson's team of advisers will make to some ministers. Others include:

  • Stepping down as director or officer of a corporation.
  • Securing approval from the commissioner to continue as or become a director or officer in a philanthropic, charitable or non-commercial organization.
  • Recusals and conflict-of-interest screens.

'Only know what we're told'

The commissioner can launch probes into ethical violations based on complaints or she can self-initiate investigations, including some that occur after media reports. But she concedes that generally her office can only go on what it receives.

"We only know what we're told," she said.

Dawson has called for more stringent rules for ministers and MPs, including policies for accepting and disclosing gifts and sponsored travel and reporting requirements for post-employment. But with the Liberal government's busy agenda, she's not sure when they might be considered.

"The question is whether they will, as a new government, look at it [and] when the opportunity to look at it will be," she said.