Political gifts need new rules, ethics czar says

The federal ethics commissioner says rules governing gifts to cabinet ministers and other senior officials are confusing and contradictory and are in need of an overhaul.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, left, receives a gift from Libya's National Transitional Council chairman Mustafa Abdul-Jalil during a visit to Libya in June. Ministers are required to declare gifts worth more than $200, but the federal ethics commissioner says the rules aren't clear. (Hassan Ammar/Associated Press)

Canada's ethics commissioner says no one is managing expensive gifts given to cabinet ministers and other high-ranking government officials.

Mary Dawson says the Accountability Act needs regulations that specifically outlines what should happen to the pricey presents officials receive from foreign governments.

"My concern is that it belongs to the Crown and there's no one managing it. Anything could happen to those gifts. As long as there's no rule, there's no rule to be broken," Dawson said.

Inside a locked storeroom at National Defence headquarters, gifts to Canada's Chief of the Defence Staff Walt Natynczyk are piling up. Most of the presents are small tokens such as ceremonial coins, local handicrafts and plaques.

Earlier this year, at two Friends of Libya conferences, his counterpart from Qatar gave Natynczyk suitcases filled with luxury goods such as perfume, wallets, watches and a Paris Hilton handbag.

"It's a rather eclectic array of things, all very nice," said Lt.-Cmdr. Kris Phillips as he reaches deep into a bottom shelf to pull out a bronze bust, a present from the Greek government.

On display in the reception area, he points out plaques, a silver tumbler, a medallion from Guatemala and a small mother of pearl screen from Korea.

"One of the more interesting items that we have on this particular table is a Hawaiian shark tooth club, which the CDS was given while he was visiting Hawaii," Phillips said.

Watches and perfume given to Chief of the Defence Staff Walt Natynczyk are stored at Defence headquarters. (Alison Crawford/CBC)
Some of the gifts are worth more than $1,000, and in accordance with the Accountability Act, must be forfeited to the Crown.

But there are still no regulations to explain what that means.

"There's still a little bit of a gap of understanding as to where these things are supposed to be stored, what we're supposed to be doing with them, so we keep them locked up here until ... well essentially, until someone can tell us what exactly we're supposed to be doing with them," Phillips said.

Ethics commissioners highlights concerns

Dawson raised her own concerns about the lack of rules surrounding gifts in her annual report.

"The gift provisions are quite confusing. People seem to have a lot of trouble understanding them and what adds to the confusion is that the code and the act have different rules," said Dawson, noting that there are different rules for cabinet ministers, MPs and parliamentary secretaries. "There's two sets of rules they have to follow."

In addition to forfeited gifts, all presents worth more than $200 must be reported on a public registry.

Dawson calls it an honour system.

"It's impossible to know what gifts are received from anybody unless they tell you."

For the first time, Dawson said she has amended her annual letter to all MPs and public officeholders to ask, in bold, whether they have received any gifts in the last year.

"We're hoping that may make a difference," she said.

Few declarations made

This bronze bust was a gift from the Greek government to one of Natynczyk's predecessors, Gen. John de Chastelain. (Alison Crawford/CBC)
A review of ministers who travel frequently shows few declarations.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty hasn't registered a gift in almost two years, although his spokesperson said he recently reported an item received last month.

In the last three years, Defence Minister Peter MacKay has registered CFL tickets and a baseball autographed by Joe Di Maggio.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has declared one item, and his office said another three are in the process of being registered.

As for a large silver-coloured platter he received in June at a Friends of Libya Conference, Baird's spokesman, Joseph Lavoie, said it was not registered because it is worth less than $200.

Lavoie refused to say what the item is made of or how it was appraised, only that "gifts are valued by open source where possible, otherwise comparison against other established gift registries and — if there is any legitimate question — by formal appraisal."

The law is up for review next year, and NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice said it's time the government closed the loopholes.

"We know that they are receiving lots of gifts but we cannot track them. There is no obligation for them to register anything," Boulerice said.

new rule goes into effect next year for the prime minister's forfeited gifts. The objects will go to museums, galleries and the National Capital Commission.

Dawson said it's a good policy. "I don't know why it wouldn't apply to all the cabinet ministers."