Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
Everyone who has every worked in a government office has been given the conflict of interest talk – everyone.
Simply put, to uphold the senior tenet of the Canadian Constitution – Peace, Order and Good Government – those elected and employed by government cannot use their position to personally benefit themselves. In Regina v. Hinchy 1996 the Supreme Court of Canada further upheld the standard, ruling a public servant could not award contracts to the benefit of their own company.
While the ruling is seen as a seminal point in upholding Canada’s conflict of interest laws, so too was the minority judgement from Justice Peter Cory. The outstanding jurist wrote support for the majority position and added to it, a minority opinion that is drilled into senior staff in political offices across this country.
“The magnitude and importance of government business requires not only the complete integrity of government employees and officers conducting government business, but also that this integrity and trustworthiness be readily apparent to society as a whole.”
Simply put, not only is an actual conflict of interest damaging to the government and the public’s perception of government, something that has the appearance of a conflict – even if it is not – is just as damaging.
If you happen to work for the federal government, rules governing apparent conflicts of interest are set out in the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service which public servants are required to comply. The simple fact that you were elected and not hired into your position does not give you a pass.
“Public servants are required in their actions to be as concerned with preventing apparent conflicts of interest as they are with preventing real and potential conflicts of interest,” says the Government of Canada’s own website on the issue.
So as a political staffer in both intermediate and senior roles I knew – because my bosses told me – that my interactions with the public in the context of my position had to be beyond reproach.
This was consistent with BC Liberal Attorneys General– from both sides of the political spectrum – the Premier of BC and from the former Leader of the Official Opposition here in Ontario – Tim Hudak.
Furthermore, as Director of Legislative Affairs to Mr. Hudak, I worked in consort with MPP Peter Kormos, Welland, and Gilles Bison, Timmons, – the former and present Ontario NDP House Leaders.
In every case, regardless of political leaning or outright stripe, the tenant of appearance of a conflict of interest is just as bad as an actual conflict was upheld.
So in saying all this there is no reason why suddenly the present Liberal Party in Ottawa has forgotten this tenant. There is no excuse, there is no rationale. There is no legitimate reason the two highest offices in politics in Canada – the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance – suddenly forgot about this central tenant to our constitution.
It also means in violating this central tenant, both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau are in an apparent conflict of interest against the people and constitution of Canada. And may also be in a real conflict.
Why? Well the reason for that can be found quite succinctly in the majority opinion of the ruling cited earlier.
“It is hardly necessary for me to expand on the importance of having a government which demonstrates integrity. Suffice it to say that our democratic system would have great difficulty functioning efficiently if its integrity was constantly in question.”
“While this has not traditionally been a major problem in Canada, we are not immune to seeing officials fall from grace as the result of a violation of the important trust we place in their integrity…”
This is to say in the case of Mr. Trudeau’s family ties to the embattled WE charity and Mr. Morneau’s accounting and memory deficiencies – $41,000 trip paid for by a group that receives government funding – the two men have “fallen from grace.”
This is not to say they are bad people, this is not to say they are in an overwhelming position dealing with a worldwide pandemic. This isn’t even to say they are not better than the alternatives on the other side of the house.
This is to say the Prime Minister and Finance Minister have violated the central tenant of Canadian Democracy by showing a lack of integrity and calling into question Peace, Order and Good Government.
According to the government’s own website regarding an “apparent conflict of interest” that “Public servants are required in their actions to be as concerned with preventing apparent conflicts of interest as they are with preventing real and potential conflicts of interest.”
In the case of a “real” conflict the proof is a little trickier because it requires proof of the conflict that is sufficient. An “apparent” conflict of interest, however, is where it appears to members of the public that a public servant’s private interests could improperly influence the performance of his or her duties. “Private interests” are not limited to financial interests.”
And what should the penalties be for such a massive lack of judgement?
“Public servants who do not comply with the Code, including the requirement to prevent or resolve apparent conflicts of interest, are subject to disciplinary action, including termination of employment.”
This isn’t my opinion, this is the opinion of the Government of Canada and found on the government’s own website.
So the question remains. Was what Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau did a real conflict of interest or an apparent one?
The law says it doesn’t matter – the penalty is the same.
You may be able to argue the actual action and damage was minor. But given the position of the violators, they impact and damage to Canada makes it major.
Kelly Harris is Principal of Harris Public Affairs and former Membership Chair of the Public Affairs Association of Canada (Ontario Chapter). He is a regular commentator on Global News Radio 640 and columnist for Queen’s Park Briefing. He has spent the last decade working with Canada’s credit unions and served as Director on the Board of the Canadian Credit Union Association. An internationally published journalist, he has held senior positions in the Gordon Campbell Government in British Columbia and Tim Hudak’s opposition at Queen’s Park. An avid traveller, cyclist and father to Busher, an orange tabby, named after Toronto Maple Leaf Great Harvey “Busher” Jackson.