The180·The 180

Trump, Trudeau, and the truth about conflict of interest

Business ethicist Chris MacDonald says, while 'conflict of interest' is sometimes used as a synonym for 'corruption,' the reality is much more mundane. He argues that if we came to terms with how commonplace it is, politicians would be much better at maintaining trust with the electorate.
U.S. president-elect Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke by phone on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. Trudeau's office said the prime minister invited Trump to visit Canada. (Associated Press/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Donald Trump are both under scrutiny for their perceived conflicts of interest.

But business ethicist Chris MacDonald of Ryerson University says many people have a fundamental misconception of what conflict of interest means. And that widespread misconception can lead to politicians and business leaders getting in even more trouble.

MacDonald says, what people need to remember is that saying someone is in a conflict of interest isn't an accusation, it's an observation. 

People think that conflict of interest is intrinsically unethical. That you can accuse someone of being in a conflict of interest. The key ethical issue really is: how do you handle that situation.- Chris MacDonald, Ryerson University

Since conflicts of interest aren't the same as corruption, politicians shouldn't try to hide them

To MacDonald, the confusion over whether a conflict of interest is inherently unethical, can lead to politicians and leaders handling their conflicts of interest poorly, such as promising to behave with integrity. 

Being in a conflict of interest is not a question of your integrity. When I point out someone to someone: hey, you're in a conflict of interest,I'm not saying they're corrupt, I'm not saying they're a bad person... even people of high integrity, with the best of intentions, can be subconsciously, unintentionally swayed by a personal interest.- Chris MacDonald, Ryerson University

Prime Minister Trudeau is currently under investigation by the Ethics Commissioner over his recent vacation to the Aga Khan's private island.

There are two complaints against Trudeau, one regarding the fact that the Aga Khan foundation is a registered lobbyist, and the other, that government ministers are prohibited, in most cases, from taking non-commercial aircraft. Trudeau was flown to the Aga Khan's island on a private helicopter.

Trudeau's initial defence of the vacation was that he's been lifelong friends with the Aga Khan. To MacDonald, that doesn't make it not a conflict of interest, it in fact, does the opposite. The conflict of interest doesn't come from the helicopter trip and a visit to the beach, it comes from the fact that Trudeau is lifelong friends with the Aga Khan, and he would still be advised to declare the interest, and excuse himself from decisions involving the Aga Khan foundation, vacation or not.

Politicians should be proud to declare their conflicts, and then get out of the way

MacDonald says the problem with thinking of conflict of interest as an accusation, is that it makes politicians less willing to loudly and proudly proclaim their conflicts. He says democracy would be better off if politicians understood that declaring their conflicts makes them more trustworthy, not less.

I would hope that it would be a signal of integrity. I would take it as a very healthy sign if a politician had the awareness to say "look, I'm in a conflict here and I'm going to find a way to insulate myself from this decision-making." I think it should generate public trust and public faith, and should make people feel glad that they live in a place where politicians feel bound to own up to conflicts of interest.- Chris MacDonald, Ryerson University


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