Ethics watchdog's warnings go unheeded by government, MPs

Give Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson full points for sticking to her message, at least, even if she seems to have her work cut out for her when it comes to getting politicians to actually listen to what she has to say.

Gifts to MPs, fundraising among conflict issues raised by ethics commissioner, but ignored

Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson has repeatedly called on Parliament to tighten up the conflict of interest rules for MPs, cabinet ministers and other public office holders. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Give Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson full points for sticking to her message, even if she seems to have her work cut out for her when it comes to getting federal politicians to actually listen to what she has to say.

Last week, she cleared Canadian Heritage Minister Shelly Glover of opposition charges of ethical impropriety over a fundraiser organized by her riding association earlier this year.

In her ruling, Dawson concluded Glover had not breached federal conflict of interest laws, as there was no clear evidence she had been aware that the hosts of the get-together had targeted the Winnipeg arts and cultural community when putting together the invitation list.

But she also suggested the government should consider adding a provision to the Conflict of Interest Act to make it clear that ignorance of an event's potential to create an actual or apparent conflict of interest is no excuse.

It's the second time in less than a year Dawson has attempted to make the case for tougher rules on political fundraising by ministers and parliamentary secretaries.

Last winter, she submitted a comprehensive analysis on potential changes to the act to the House ethics committee as part of its statutory five-year review of the law, originally brought in as part of the Conservatives' much-touted 2006 Accountability Act.

In it, she noted the issue of fundraising by ministers and parliamentary secretaries has come up in several past examinations and proposed that "a more stringent rule … be established."

That suggestion was conspicuously absent from recommendations submitted by the Conservative-controlled committee, although it did appear in the minority reports prepared by the New Democrats and the Liberals.

Contacted by CBC News last week in the wake of the Glover report, the Prime Minister's Office was silent on Dawson's call to extend restrictions on fundraising by cabinet members. 

Recommendations that did make it into the report included extending the law to cover public service unions, ensuring greater privacy protection for the targets of complaints during investigations and allowing for judicial review in the event of an "error in law."

A spokeswoman for Treasury Board President Tony Clement says there is "still no timeline for completion" of the review.

MP gift policy also questioned

The commissioner hasn't had much better luck persuading MPs that their self-authored conflict of interest code needs fine-tuning.

Earlier this month, her office sent out a bulletin on the eve of the fall reception circuit advising MPs to turn down all but the most modest gifts and hospitality they may be offered by the industry associations, advocacy groups and other organizations involved in staging annual "Lobby Day" events on the Hill.

"Given that organizations that hold lobby days on Parliament Hill are clearly seeking your support as a member, you are prohibited from accepting gifts from them."

As is the case with the rules on fundraising, this isn't the first time that Dawson has aired concerns over, well, let's call it an unintentional ambiguity in the existing guidelines on gifts to MPs.

Two and a half years ago, she told the procedure and House affairs committee that, despite "ongoing efforts to raise awareness" on provisions in the current code, those rules were still not clearly understood.

"Many members mistakenly believe that gifts are automatically acceptable if they are valued at less than $500," she told the committee. "In fact, the value is not a criterion of acceptability; it is the threshold for public declaration."

Her proposed solution: Drop that threshold to $30.

"I believe that in making this change, members would pay more attention to the question of whether gifts they receive are acceptable," she argued.

She also suggested the committee consider updating the code to include invitations to events and receptions at which food and refreshment are provided.

"There appears to be a widely held perception among members that these gifts are not covered by the code or that they could, in all cases, be considered customary hospitality," Dawson observed.

"I do not read the code that way." 

Review in limbo

Unfortunately for the commissioner, her parliamentary charges — on both sides of the House — have thus far demonstrated a lack of interest in revisiting the rules.

On June 6, 2012, just days after Dawson's appearance, the committee requested an extension to the deadline for its review of the conflict of interest code. The request was granted — and that, as it turned out, was the last time it made it onto the committee agenda.

More than two years later, with an election less than a year away, there's no indication it will make it back to the top of the to-do list any time soon.

It is undoubtedly alarmist to suggest the current regime allows ministers to exploit fundraising loopholes to rake in cash from interest groups, or gives lobbyists the ability to wield undue influence by handing out gift bags to backbench MPs enjoying an open-bar reception.

Even so, the willingness of MPs — and, indeed, the government — to politely ignore the ethics commissioner's concerns should be a bit worrying.


Kady O'Malley covered Parliament Hill for CBC News until June, 2015.