Ethics watchdog tries again to get MPs to limit gift bags, junkets

In what has become a long-running, if largely fruitless campaign, Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson is once again attempting to persuade MPs to tighten up the House conflict of interest code. But judging from the response she's received, MPs still aren't ready to heed her call.

Tighter restrictions on sponsored trips, political fundraising on Mary Dawson's wishlist

Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson wants MPs to consider tightening up House conflict of interest code. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In what has become a long-running, if largely fruitless, campaign, Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson is once again attempting to persuade MPs to tighten up the House conflict of interest code.

Judging from the response she has received, however, it appears her parliamentary charges still aren't ready to heed her call.

During an appearance before the procedure and House affairs committee Thursday, Dawson reiterated many of the same suggestions that she's made in the past — most recently, when she testified at the same committee during its statutory review of the code in 2012.

That list includes:

  • "Significantly" reducing the $500-threshold for public disclosure of gifts.
  • Adding additional restrictions on political fundraising efforts that could potentially be seen as furthering private interests.
  • Imposing filing deadlines for all "reporting obligations."
  • Broadening disclosure rules to cover the private interests of relatives and friends, not just immediate family members.
  • Giving the Ethics Commissioner more leeway to explain her decision to reject or launch requested investigations.
  • Barring MPs from publicly discussing complaints filed with the commissioner until the request has been received and the target notified.
  • Empowering the commissioner to summon witnesses and compel production of documents, as is already the case under the Conflict of Interest Act governing public office holders.

In her opening statement, Dawson expanded on her concerns over how the code deals with sponsored travel.

"It's a paradox that a gift from an organization seeking to influence [an MP] would not be acceptable, but an expensive trip sponsored by the same organization would be permitted without any question," Dawson told the committee.

Sponsored travel, gifts

Dawson would like to see the code include an "acceptability test" akin to that already in place for gifts and other benefits, and would reduce the threshold for publicly reporting all information related to such travel — including any part paid by a third party — to $500.

Under her recommendations, MPs would also be required to publicly declare "any outside source of funding for sponsored travel," even if directed through an inter-parliamentary association or friendship group.

She also highlighted what has become a continuing theme: the challenge of ensuring that invitations to events — from cocktail receptions to "information sessions" — at which refreshments are served comply with existing rules.

"Members may not consider them to be gifts, or may believe they constitute customary hospitality and are thus exempted from the acceptability test," she said, adding she has "always applied the gift rules to such invitations."

Her recommendation: Create a "special category" under the code that would exempt events where invitations are issued to all MPs.

Finally, Dawson suggested MPs might want to consider establishing a separate code of conduct to cover partisan and personal conduct of their staff.

Gift bag ban requirements questioned

But during a question-and-answer session following her presentation, committee members seemed more concerned with the logistics of the rules already in place — and, perhaps unintentionally, in providing a rare view into the more prosaic aspects of life as an MP.

Conservative MP Scott Reid brought up Dawson's edict last fall forbidding MPs from accepting gift bags from lobby groups, which, he argued, put MPs in the position of having to return "unsolicited mail" or risk breaching the code.

"This was with relation to some stuff that had been sent to members from the Canadian Health Food Association," Reid said.

"Aside from a $10-off coupon at Kardish health stores," he added, "it's all things that I can't regard as being gifts: a bunch of fish oil capsules, [an] issue of Alive … some Bio-K probiotic capsules."

By the time he'd received Dawson's memo, he said, he had "thrown all this stuff in the garbage, making it impossible to return it."

"I don't want to be in a situation where I have to, when I get unsolicited mail, be under a moral obligation to hunt down the person who sent it to me and send it back to them," he told the commissioner.

"Is there anything that would preclude you, as the code is written … from saying you must return it or dispose of it, and then perhaps you could have a form that we sign saying we just got rid of it?"

Dawson stressed her memo was meant to make the point that those giving gifts should be aware of the rules as well. She added that returning such offerings might be a good way of reinforcing that message.

And those capsules? They can cost more than $100 in drug stores, she said.

Riding galas part of 'Saturday duties': NDP MP

Meanwhile, New Democrat MP Charlie Angus wanted to make sure any limits on accepting tickets to events wouldn't infringe on his ability to do his job in his riding.

"An MP might be asked to go to four events on a Saturday night," he noted.

"It's a hundred dollars for each of them. Personally I never thought that I was being lobbied — I thought that was my job. Are you saying that if I go to the Heart and Stroke gala, and I don't buy my ticket…"

Dawson assured him the rules would only come into play if the ticket was purchased by "somebody who has an interest in getting something from you."

"Okay, so someone buys me tickets to a hockey game, and they work for a telecom, then that would be a question of they're offering you a gift — I get that," Angus said.

"But going to gala events in your riding, which is part of your Saturday duties as an MP.... that's a different thing? Okay, good."

This is the first — and, so far, only — meeting on the committee schedule for this latest review of the code.

As for that statutory five-year review that wrapped up in 2012 — more than two years later, it still hasn't been tabled in the House.

And with just 12 sitting weeks to go before the 41st Parliament shuts down for good, Dawson may find herself making the very same case to a new — or, perhaps, familiar — batch of MPs after the next election.

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


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