Nova Scotia·Analysis

Nova Scotia's conflict of interest commissioner: What does he do?

Nova Scotia's Conflict of Interest Commissioner Merlin Nunn's ruling that cleared cabinet minister Michel Samson of an accusation that he lied to Nova Scotians is raising questions about whether the law needs to be changed.
Nova Scotia's conflict of interest commissioner cleared cabinet minister Michel Samson of any wrongdoing last month for not disclosing funding information to the media about the ferry service between Yarmouth and Maine. (CBC)

Nova Scotia politicians are quick to point fingers at one another but actual accusations of wrongdoing are rare, which is why we so seldom hear from Nova Scotia's conflict of interest commissioner.

Merlin Nunn's ruling this week that cleared cabinet minister Michel Samson of an accusation that he lied to Nova Scotians, is raising questions about whether the law needs to be changed.

What is the commissioner's job?

When someone does formally complain, it's the job of Nova Scotia's conflict of interest commissioner, to deal with it.

Nunn, a former Supreme Court justice, has been commissioner since 1997.

His job description is posted on the only web page devoted to the office. It's on the Nova Scotia Legislature's web site.

It reads, "The commissioner has all the powers, privileges and immunities of a commissioner appointed pursuant to the Public Inquiries Act and can initiate an inquiry on any matter pursuant to the Members and Public Employees Disclosure Act and the Conflict of Interest Act."

In essence, those laws spell out the rules of conduct for the 51 members of the Nova Scotia Legislature, including special provisions for the premier and members of his cabinet.

It's the commissioner's job to deal with complaints when a member of the House violates either act. He can also provide advice to MLAs when they have questions related to possible conflicts. It's impossible to know how many complaints he's dealt with or even how many rulings he's issued because the process in Nova Scotia is confidential from start to finish.

Those involved are free to share that information but there's no obligation to do that. Nunn doesn't respond to media inquiries and he doesn't comment or elaborate on his rulings.

Is it as secretive in other provinces?

In New Brunswick, for example, conflict of interest investigation reports are filed with the speaker and those decisions are posted on a website. Those reports are detailed. They include a step-by-step description of the investigation and findings are well documented.

Most other provinces and territories do release some information about these kinds of inquiries. And in most cases that can only happen with the consent of one of the parties involved.

If there's an obligation to report back to the Clerk of the House — in most cases that information is publicly available.

In Ottawa, the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner is just as free with information. There's a web site. Federal reports are just a mouse-click away, the commissioner also files an annual report and the office also has a communications person to answer questions from the public or the media.

About the Author

Jean Laroche

Reporter

Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter for 32 years. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.

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