Ex-cabinet minister Donald Arseneault is now free to lobby N.B. government

It's the first week of Donald Arseneault's life as a former politician, meaning he's now free to lobby the New Brunswick Liberal government he was part of just a few weeks ago.

Canada's Building Trades Unions say Donald Arseneault was never going to lobby in province

Donald Arseneault, the former MLA for Campbellton-Dalhousie, is now working for Canada’s Building Trades Unions. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

It's the first week of Donald Arseneault's life as a former politician, meaning he's now free to lobby the New Brunswick Liberal government he was part of just a few weeks ago.

But that government says new restrictions to curtail that freedom — and that of other MLAs who become lobbyists in the future — could be introduced as early as this week.

"We are hoping to bring this legislation this week, perhaps as early as tomorrow," Tina Robichaud, a spokesperson for Premier Brian Gallant, said in an email statement Monday.

Arseneault, the former Liberal MLA for Campbellton-Dalhousie, resigned his seat last week, fulfilling the promise he made Nov. 3 during a controversy over his new job as a government lobbyist for a national labour organization.

At first, Arseneault planned to remain an MLA while also working as the Ottawa-based government relations manager with Canada's Building Trades Unions, an umbrella group of 14 unions. There was no legal restriction on him holding both jobs.

But he announced he would resign as MLA after Premier Brian Gallant said he would not be allowed to sit as a Liberal if he held both jobs.

Few restrictions 

Now that Arseneault no longer holds elected office, Arseneault is subject to few restrictions on his interactions with his longtime Liberal colleagues in the New Brunswick government.

New Brunswick Integrity Commissioner Alexandre Deschênes said Nov. 3 that a so-called "cooling off" period for ex-MLAs puts few restrictions on what Arseneault can do now.

Integrity Commissioner Alexandre Deschênes says the province's conflict rules for MLAs allowed Donald Arseneault to do the two jobs. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

The cooling-off section of the Members' Conflict of Interest Act says a former MLA cannot "make representations on his or her own behalf or on behalf of any other person with respect to a contract or financial benefit" for one year.

But Deschênes said in a statement Nov. 3 that the section doesn't prohibit all lobbying once a member of the legislature leaves.

An ex-MLA "could lawfully engage, as soon as he leaves office, in lobbying a provincial office holder" as long as it's not about a "contract or financial benefit" described in the act, the commissioner said.

'Law is very weak'

Donald Bowser, a New Brunswicker who works as a transparency and anti-corruption adviser to foreign governments, said Deschênes could have interpreted the "spirit" of the law to apply the cooling-off restriction to all lobbying.

"The law is very weak and does not serve its intended purpose of stopping conflict of interests or abuse of power," he said.

Robichaud said that the legislation the government is drafting "does address Commissioner Deschênes' concerns."

Cabinet ministers are not allowed to hold second jobs, but backbench MLAs have no such restriction. Arseneault was shuffled out of Gallant's cabinet Sept. 5, freeing him to accept the union job.

Perceived conflict

But the position became controversial because of the perceived conflict between his continuing role attending Liberal caucus meetings and the possibility the new job would include influencing Liberal government decisions.

Gallant cited the "perception" of a conflict when he said Nov. 2 that Arseneault would be removed from the Liberal caucus if he insisted on keeping the lobbying job.

Premier Brian Gallant told Donald Arseneault on Nov. 2 he had to chose between the legislature or the union group. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Earlier this year, Deschênes suggested another change to the conflict law to outlaw "perceived" or "apparent" conflicts of interest. He said that would eliminate cases where an MLA is technically following the rules but where it created a perception of conflict.

Arseneault consulted Deschênes after he accepted the union job and said that, based on the commissioner's advice, he would not lobby the New Brunswick government in his new job.

He said at a second meeting on Oct. 26, Deschênes clarified his advice and said Arseneault should not lobby any government while still an MLA, something he agreed to.

But once he resigned his seat last week, Arseneault was no longer subject to the commissioner's advice or oversight.

No lobbying in province

Andrew Dawson, the New Brunswick manager for Canada's Building Trades Unions and a friend of Arseneault's, said the former MLA won't be lobbying in New Brunswick.

"We're a national organization and New Brunswick's share of the construction economy in Canada is not great," Dawson said. "The intention was never to have him lobby in New Brunswick and that's not the intention now, even though it's legal and he's cleared to do it."

Arseneault turned down an interview request from CBC News.

About the Author

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.