Inside Politics

UPDATED - Ethics watchdog reportedly clears CRTC letter-writing MP

UPDATE 10/22/2013: According to a release issued by Conservative MP David Anderson earlier today, Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson has given her retroactive blessing to his recent correspondence with the CRTC:

Although he didn't provide the text of her letter, Anderson did offer his reaction to the press gallery:

"I am pleased to have the Ethics Commissioner's review.  I welcome her input.  I would not have written the letter if I had not been comfortable that I could represent my constituents in this matter."


In defence of David Anderson (and CRTC letter-writing parliamentary secretaries) (originally posted October 4, 2013)

As we wait for Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson to decide if David Anderson's recent letter to the CRTC breached federal conflict of interest laws, it's worth revisiting her precedent-setting rulings from last January, which seemed to establish a blanket ban on parliamentary secretaries communicating with federal tribunals on matters related to the "decision-making process."

Dawson could, of course, ultimately conclude that Anderson's letter fell well within permissible parameters -- after all, unlike the parliamentary secretaries who drew Dawson's ire earlier this year, he wasn't writing in support on behalf of a specific private interest.

But even if she were to rule against him, it may be time to ask whether it's really necessary to bar MPs who are but a baby step away from the backbench from carrying out the same sort of constituent-pleasing busywork as their colleagues who sit closer to the Commons curtains.

I'll come right out and admit it: I remain unconvinced.

Let's put this in perspective, shall we?

This is not an instance of a cabinet minister dashing off a quick note to a sitting judge or equivalent arbiter to request that he or she go easy on, say, a long-time donor.

A veteran MP -- who, it must be said, also serves as a parliamentary secretary, albeit at the time, to the minister of natural resources, who has no direct influence over the telecommunications file -- responded to a wide-open invitation to share his thoughts on a particular aspect of the current broadcast policy. 

His letter makes no reference to his sous ministerial role, but explicitly mentions his concern over the ability of his constituents "and all Canadians" to "make informed decisions about the world's event on a daily basis."

He doesn't even provide any specific recommendations on how the commission should proceed, but closes by stating that he "anticipates a decision that will be based on fairness" and give Canadians equal access to "all national news broadcasters."

As far as I can tell, contrary to the suggestion made by New Democrat ethics critic Charlie Angus, Anderson's missive wouldn't even tweak the needle on the cranky-letter-to-the-editor scale.

It includes no direct instructions or veiled threats, no rambling diatribes, no shadowy conspiracy theories -- in fact, it doesn't even make any specific recommendation as to how the CRTC should proceed, but simply outlines his hoped-for outcome in the most general possible manner.

If it had been sent by any other backbench MP, it likely wouldn't raise even have caused Angus to raise an eyebrow, were it not for the previous edicts handed down by Dawson on the propriety of parliamentary secretaries engaging in similar correspondence.

(Interestingly, a quick scan of the now-closed submission list for this particular study suggests that Anderson is the only MP to have offered up his views on the subject.)

To date, the CRTC has received submissions from every major telecommunications company and broadcast media outlet with a vested interest in its decision -- which, as far as I can tell, would seem to be pretty much all of them -- as well as labour unions and professional associations representing journalists from coast-to-coast, assorted other activist and advocacy groups and a surprisingly large number of individual Canadians.

Given all that, would a two-page letter from a parliamentary secretary -- writing in his capacity as an MP, no less -- truly exert untoward political influence?

If we have reason to believe that those who sit on quasi-judicial tribunals can't be trusted to give such semi-solicited contributions the precise amount of careful consideration that they deserve, perhaps we should go one step further, and forbid all MPs, government or otherwise, from taking part in in such consultations.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that we drop the rule entirely, and set ministers free to fire off dispatches to federal tribunals at whim. 

Long before the current conflict of interest laws were put in place, such actions were pretty much universally recognized as something that was Simply Not Done -- and indeed, on the rare occasion that it was, the minister in question has nearly always found himself on the backbench on the spot.

But when the Conflict of Interest Act next comes up for renewal, MPs may want to take a closer look at the pros and cons of tweaking the rules to give parliamentary secretaries a limited exemption.

At the moment, they seem to be forced to operate at a distinct disadvantage when following what is, ultimately, the prime directive of all MPs; namely, doing their very best to represent the views and interests of their constituents. 

It's clear that's all that Anderson believed that he was doing, and it's hard to see how taking away his ability to do so would truly serve the public good. 

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