Tories' ethics report targets unions but fails to fix rules, opposition says
Report reflects little of testimony by ethics commissioner, experts
A new report from the House ethics committee ignores most of the suggestions about how to improve the rules for cabinet ministers and senior staffers, but recommends applying those rules to all union members working for the Canadian government.
The committee got hundreds of recommendations on how to improve or update the Conflict of Interest Act, the rules that set ethical guidelines for public office holders. But the final report, tabled Wednesday in the House of Commons, contains 16 recommendations, most of which have nothing to do with the expert witness testimony heard from January to June 2013.
The NDP and Liberal MPs on the committee submitted minority reports criticizing the main text, which was approved by the Conservative majority.
The first recommendation is to bring all public service union members under the Conflict of Interest Act. The last recommendation would also draw civil servants at the director general level and up under the act.
But ethics experts, as well as union spokespeople, say public servants are already covered under stricter measures than the ones that apply to MPs and senators.
The NDP says only five of the 16 recommendations are based in testimony heard by the committee.
New Democrat ethics critic Charlie Angus said it's "absolutely shocking" to see the recommendations.
"What we're seeing here is a deliberate attempt to rip up the principles of the Accountability Act," he said.
"It's about protecting the ministers, it's about silencing the investigations and it's about actually going after people, civil servants," when former ministers get "a free pass."
Liberal MP Scott Andrews, the committee's vice-chair, wrote in the party's minority report that the report "is a complete farce."
In an interview, Andrews said Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson made good recommendations for changes to both the technical and substantial parts of the law. But only a handful of those suggestions made it into the report.
"Even the written report, as it's written, doesn't even resemble what the recommendations are saying," Andrews told CBC News.
'Ignored the proposals'
The committee took a substantial amount of time hearing discussion on whether there should be stiffer penalties for breaking the rules, including financial penalties, and on whether the threshold should be lowered for the value of gifts that must be declared.
There was also discussion on how to make the rules more enforceable — the commissioner is often criticized for being a watchdog with no teeth — and on whether public office holders should automatically have to sell off certain assets.
Angus says there's a great deal missing from the recommendations, including monetary penalties, more clear post-employment rules, rules about fundraising and the ability for the public to lodge complaints.
Paul Calandra, parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a member of the committee, said there were too many recommendations to include in the report.
He said Treasury Board Minister Tony Clement will consider the recommendations, as well as the testimony the committee heard, and decide what to do with them.
"In the final analysis, we felt that what we were bringing forward were the necessary ... recommendations that fulfilled our mandate to review [the act] without creating a bill that was just completely unmanageable," Calandra said.
The Conservatives on the committee felt it was necessary to bring union members under the act, he said.
"Obviously, when you're talking about individuals who are negotiating or dealing with the government, we thought that in that aspect it would be important to bring them under the same rules that other public office holders hold," he said.
Rules for public servants already tougher
But Democracy Watch founder Duff Conacher, who submitted dozens of recommendations for the committee's study, says the Treasury Board's code of conduct for public servants is actually tougher than the one covering cabinet ministers and senior government officials. The code for public servants it covers "apparent" conflicts of interest as well as actual conflicts of interest.
Conacher asked the committee to recommend putting the word "apparent" into the Conflict of Interest Act.
"And this is why," he said.
"Because they've already applied it actually to public-sector employees, to all federal public servants, so they believe it's workable because they've applied it to public servants. But they haven't applied it to themselves.
"The Conservatives on the committee ignored the proposals of most witnesses including the ethics commissioner and made very weak recommendations that won't do anything to ensure cabinet ministers and senior government officials are effectively required to make ethical decisions," he said.
Edith Bramwell, legal counsel for the Public Service Alliance of Canada, says some of the central provisions of the rules for public office holders are about not giving preferential treatment to anyone in "the exercise of an official power, duty or function."
"Those very basic conflict of interest concepts are already covered off by the code of conduct, which is something the government and our members as public-service workers take very seriously," she said.
with files from Alison Crawford