Canada's ethics watchdog wants greater powers to sanction ministers who break rules

Canada's ethics watchdog says he would like to have greater powers to impose penalties against cabinet ministers and public office holders who violate conflict rules, including the ability to levy fines of up to $10,000.

Mario Dion says he's received no indication 'whatsoever' that Liberals are interested in updating ethics laws

Public sector integrity commissioner Mario Dion is shown in Ottawa on December 13, 2011. Canada's ethics watchdog says he would like to have greater powers to impose penalties against cabinet ministers and public office holders who violate conflict rules, including the ability to levy fines of up to $10,000. (Mario Dion/The Canadian Press)

Canada's ethics watchdog says he would like to have greater powers to impose penalties against cabinet ministers and public office holders who violate conflict rules, including the ability to levy fines of up to $10,000.

Conflict of Interest Commissioner Mario Dion says he believes strongly in the importance of upholding ethics rules in government, but the current conflict of interest law offers him limited powers of action when someone does break the rules.

"I would really like to have the power to express a point of view as [to] the gravity of the contravention when we find a contravention, [and] what kind of sanctions should be taken," he told The Canadian Press in an interview.

"It's important to know that there will be consequences if you don't respect something."

Questions about penalties, or lack thereof, for cabinet ministers who break ethics rules were raised following a ruling Wednesday that Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc breached conflict of interest law when he approved an Arctic surf clam licence to a company that employed a family member.

Dion determined that LeBlanc knew his wife's first cousin was involved in the Five Nations Clam Co. and also knew the cousin stood to benefit financially when awarding the company a multi-million dollar licence last February.

LeBlanc should have recused himself from the decision, Dion ruled.

Despite the finding of conflict, no penalties were attached to the ruling and LeBlanc has so far not been publicly sanctioned by the prime minister.

'What kind of message does that send?'

Rex Matthews, mayor of Grand Bank, N.L., says LeBlanc should resign or be removed from cabinet for his role in the licensing deal, which the government has since halted but would have ended a monopoly on the Arctic clam fishery held by Clearwater Seafoods, located in Matthews' community.

"He should have known, if there's any possibility of a conflict of interest, you should remove yourself," Matthews said from his home in Newfoundland.

"What kind of message does that send? When the ethics commissioner says that you're in violation of public office, to me, what more do you need to say? You have made a big mistake and you should pay for that mistake."

The Conflict of Interest Act came into effect in 2007 as part of the Harper administration's Federal Accountability Act, which came in the wake of the Liberal sponsorship scandal of the early 2000s.

A ruling from the federal conflict of interest commissioner has found that former fisheries minister Dominic LeBlanc was in a conflict of interest when awarded a surf clam quota to Five Nations Clam Company.

The 11-year old act has not been updated since its inception. It governs the actions of 2,400 public office holders.

The only penalties that can be imposed by the commissioner are minor financial penalties of no more than $500, which apply if a public office holder fails to report within certain time frames receiving things such as gifts or offers of employment.

No penalties exist for infractions like LeBlanc's — except the act of exposing the actions by way of a report, Dion said.

He said the $500 penalty is "very low" and should be increased and broadened as an "incentive not to breach the obligations."

"Something in the order of $10,000 as a maximum for both the failure the to do what you're supposed to do in the time that you're supposed to do it, but also for substantive contravention of the act, as well."

Changes not a government priority: Dion

Speaking to reporters in Saskatoon Thursday about the findings against LeBlanc, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he believes Canadians are "reassured" that Canada has "one of the strongest ethics frames in governments around the world."

"We work with the ethics commissioner, we accept the ethics commissioner's findings and we will always work to rectify and move forward in the ways the ethics commissioner recommends."

But the act does not permit the commissioner to recommend anything. That's something Dion would like to see changed.

"I think this is a central issue with the act. The buck stops with the report. Then it's completely up to politicians to make decisions and I'm not even able to express a point of view about that," he said.

"We get to know the situation very well, and we're in a good position to express a point of view as to what would be an appropriate remedy. And I would like to be able to do that, but until the act is changed I don't have the authority to do that. It will be up to Parliament to decide whether they wish me to do that."

Dion has previously made his views on this point known when he appeared before a Commons committee in February.

Despite this, says he has received no indication "whatsoever" that government is interested in updating current ethics laws.

"I'm not surprised, I have a long experience in the public [sector]. There are lists of priorities and this does not appear to be one of them."

Dion says he believes it's an issue of fairness to everyone — both for those who break the rules and those who do not.

"If a group of people follow religiously the provisions and do everything that's needed, then it's unfair to them when you fail to take action when somebody breaches the rules."

The Liberals have faced a number of ethics probes since taking office in 2015.

Last year, then-commissioner Mary Dawson found Trudeau broke Canada's ethics laws over two all-expenses-paid family trips to a private island in the Bahamas owned by the Aga Khan. Trudeau also had to pay a $100 fine earlier this year for failing to disclosing a gift of sunglasses from the premier of P.E.I.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has also been investigated several times by the ethics czar. He was cleared in two of those probes, which involved sponsoring a bill that reformed Canadian pension regulations while he and his family members held shares in a pension firm as well as accusations of insider trading over the sale of those shares.

He was fined $200, however, for failing to disclose a villa he owns in France through a holding company.