Evidence of meeting #40 for Procedure and House Affairs in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was code.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Mary Dawson  Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner
  • Lyne Robinson-Dalpé  Assistant Commissioner, Advisory and Compliance, Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner
  • Eppo Maertens  Director, Reports and Investigations, Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner
  • Nancy Bélanger  General Counsel, Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

11:40 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Joe Preston

Thank you.

Go ahead, Madam Turmel.

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Nycole Turmel Hull—Aylmer, QC

Thank you very much.

I can appreciate why it is an all-around good thing when members and public office holders fulfill their duty to report potential conflicts of interest.

You made 19 recommendations. I am thinking about the workload that could generate. Nathan mentioned the number of complaints you had received and the number you had investigated. I am looking at it from a workload perspective.

I want to come back to the amendments. What prompted you to propose amendments like the one designed to reduce the disclosure threshold for gifts from $500 to $30? That also has to do with solicitation and fundraising. Say I host a dinner costing $30 in my riding, and people attend, they may expect something in return. So how do you define this?

Then, you have the whole friend aspect. Ms. Dawson, you know as well as I do that when you become a public figure, everyone is your friend.

11:40 a.m.

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

Mary Dawson

Yes, but not in actual fact.

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Nycole Turmel Hull—Aylmer, QC

That is the part I really have trouble with.

What are the biggest challenges preventing you from doing your work?

11:40 a.m.

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

Mary Dawson

As I see it, the whole gift issue, which we discussed, is a big problem. We have to establish a clearer definition of what we want to regulate. I would say that is a common problem.

Some of my suggestions won't be very difficult to implement at all. It is simply a matter of a word or two. Most of the suggestions are to make the system better. I would say that a few of them are not all that complicated. Gifts are another story; that is complicated.

What's more, I would point to the public component as the biggest challenge. That is why I called for a much lower limit on gifts. Perhaps $30 isn't the right number. That was a suggestion. Five hundred, however, is too high. There has to be some transparency for less expensive gifts as well.

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Joe Preston

Thank you, Madam Turmel.

Mr. Zimmer, go ahead.

May 31st, 2012 / 11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Bob Zimmer Prince George—Peace River, BC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thanks for coming again today.

I have similar issues as my colleague Ms. Turmel concerning recommendation seven. You used the words “a prohibition against members furthering the private interest of a relative or friend”. She referred to friends as “I have 105,000 friends in the riding”. You can go that broad with it.

Certainly I represent everybody in my riding, and I think it's my job to represent those interests. So when you're saying that I have an obligation to recuse myself from participating in “discussion, decision, debate or vote where he or she may be in a position to further a private interest”, a “private interest” could be a job, could be ownership in a company, could be all these things. I consider that my job, to do the best I can do for those constituents and friends. In saying such a broad...and not just broad, but to use such strong language as a “prohibition” is concerning, to say the least.

I know you're trying to get to the bottom of this, but you're going a little too far in saying what you're saying. Just clarify, please.

11:45 a.m.

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

Mary Dawson

Okay.

Well, I think you're interpreting “friend” a lot more broadly than I would ever interpret it. A decision came out some years back, relating to the Toronto Port Authority, where somebody went to the point of calling another person his “friend” and there was an issue of conflict there. I determined that he may have called him his friend, but he wasn't really a friend for the purposes of this act. When you've got a “friend”, in the context of a relative or a family member, it's somebody who is close to you. It's somebody you might give a Christmas present to, or it's somebody.... It's not your 150 constituents that—

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Bob Zimmer Prince George—Peace River, BC

My riding is a big oil and gas area. My brother works in the industry. I have many friends who work in the industry. So when I go to a particular discussion about this, or I promote a certain point of view that my constituents expect me to promote and I personally agree with, how can I recuse myself from that? I become.... You know, I don't get it.

11:45 a.m.

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

Mary Dawson

There are a number of exceptions, such as “broad class of people” and “general application rules”. For example, everybody's under the tax statute, so that's never going to create a problem—that's if you're working on a piece of legislation, I'm making that connection.

If you looked at my guidelines under the act, I wouldn't apply my rules much differently under the code, assuming they said the same thing approximately. I interpret “friend” as being quite a narrow group of people, more like family, a long-term close friend, not somebody you've met through business or through your work, unless they become a really close friend.

With respect, what was the other issue, not friend, but...?

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Bob Zimmer Prince George—Peace River, BC

That's pretty much it.

Do I have much time, Mr. Chair?

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Joe Preston

You have a minute.

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Bob Zimmer Prince George—Peace River, BC

I had another question on interpretation. What do you consider your role as Ethics Commissioner? Are you to interpret the act, or is your job to follow the act?

11:50 a.m.

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

Mary Dawson

I think it's the same thing. It's the code or the act we're talking about, I guess. My job is to interpret it and apply it. If there are broad provisions, I have to determine how to apply those broad provisions, and I try to be as transparent as I can be as to how I'm interpreting it.

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

Bob Zimmer Prince George—Peace River, BC

Coming back to what I asked, though, I guess that is the concern. I understand that there's a certain amount of interpretation in our jobs. You use strong language—“prohibition”—and then you have “interpretation”, which you yourself say you use. I guess it becomes a deep concern to us to give you even more power to interpret and to act on that.