Ethics watchdog clears Bill Morneau in pension bill fallout

Finance Minister Bill Morneau wasn't in a conflict of interest when he introduced a pension bill in the House of Commons while he still owned shares in his family's pension company, according to the ethics commissioner.

'I found that he did not place himself in a conflict of interest,' Mario Dion writes

Canada's ethics commissioner says Finance Minister Bill Morneau wasn't in a conflict of interest when he introduced a pension bill while he owned shares in his family's pension services company. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Finance Minister Bill Morneau wasn't in a conflict of interest when he introduced a pension bill in the House of Commons while he still owned shares in his family's pension services company, according to the ethics commissioner.

The opposition benches insisted Morneau could personally benefit from Bill C-27, which seeks to amend the Pension Benefits Standards Act, because he owned shares in Morneau Shepell, a human resources firm, at the time.

In the "Morneau Report," released Monday morning, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion outlined how he had to consider whether Morneau contravened two sections of the Conflict of Interest Act that prohibit public office holders from making, or being part of, decisions if they are in a conflict of interest. 

"Because Bill C-27 is of general application, Mr. Morneau's interests, those of his relatives, and those of Morneau Shepell Inc. in this matter are excluded from the application of the act," Dion wrote in his decision.

"I found that he did not place himself in a conflict of interest in making decisions leading to the introduction of Bill C-27, therefore he did not contravene ... the Conflict of Interest Act."

In a Facebook post, Morneau thanked Dion's office for its "work and diligence."

"Canadians should always be able to trust that the people they have elected to serve are working in their best interests," he said. 

"I have always — and will always — hold myself to the highest standards."

Former ethics commissioner Mary Dawson began investigating Morneau's role in the pensions file, but retired before completing the inquiry. Morneau introduced the bill back in October 2016.

Dawson initiated the examination at the request of Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre and NDP MP Nathan Cullen. 

Cullen argued that, because Morneau held about one million shares in Morneau Shepell when he sponsored the bill, he could make millions if it passed.

"Well, it's obviously surprising," said Poilievre of Dion's report. "But regardless of whether Minister Morneau's actions were illegal, they were definitely bad judgment."

The ethics commissioner's decision to give Morneau a clean bill of health points to a loophole in the ethics laws — the "general application" clause that can let ministers off the hook for decisions they make that affect their own assets — said a spokesperson for the activist group Democracy Watch.

"Now that this huge loophole is exposed, the question is whether the Trudeau Liberals will finally close it so that the now 'Almost Impossible to be in a Conflict of Interest Act' will finally become an effective law," said Duff Conacher.

"The House ethics committee is required to review the Conflict of Interest Act this fall, and if doesn't recommend closing this loophole, and the government doesn't pass a bill closing it before the next election, it will show that the Trudeau Liberals are just as unethical as all past governments."

Not Morneau's first ethics report

Morneau's tenure as finance minister has been plagued by ethical questions about how he handled his substantial personal assets after coming to government.

In the fall of last year, he was forced to pay a $200 fine for failing to declare a corporation in France that owns a villa.

Canada's new Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion rules that "because Bill C-27 is of general application, Mr. Morneau's interests, those of his relatives, and those of Morneau Shepell Inc. in this matter are excluded from the application of the act." (Canadian Press)

​In November 2017, he committed to selling almost $20 million worth of shares he holds in Morneau Shepell, following accusations that he'd personally profited from changes he made as finance minister. He also made "a large donation" to charity.

In one of her final moves before stepping down, Dawson ruled earlier this year that Morneau and a family member didn't benefit from insider information when they sold Morneau Shepell shares in the fall of 2015. 

Poilievre had argued the timing of the share sale was no coincidence, as the share price later took a dip, and he has sought to tie the depreciation to the tax hike.

Dawson said the income tax increase for Canadians earning more than $200,000 was publicly announced on Nov. 4 and Morneau sold his shares on Nov. 30. The legislation was tabled on Dec. 7.

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