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 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Joe Preston

I call the meeting to order.

I thank you all for attending today. As you can see, we are in public and we are video-recording today. We are having our study on the review of the conflict of interest code for members.

We have Madam Dawson with us today. Madam Dawson, I will let you go ahead with your opening statement and introduce the folks who are with you. Then we'll have a round of questioning after that.

I do apologize, as I have to leave at about 11:55. Mr. Comartin, the co-chair, has suggested he will take over the chair. When you see it happen, it is not a coup; it is just a friendly replacement for today. I have some constituents in town. That is my version. It may be a coup after I've left the room, of course, but we will wait for that to happen.

11 a.m.

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

On a point of order, Chair, do we have written copies of Madam Dawson's opening statement?

11 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Joe Preston

We'll distribute what we have.

Madam Dawson, welcome.

11 a.m.

Mary Dawson Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

Thank you.

I'll introduce my colleagues first. Lyne Robinson-Dalpé is the head of the compliance and advisory section. Eppo Maertens is in charge of investigations. Nancy Bélanger is our general counsel.

Mr. Chair, I would like to thank the committee for inviting me to appear before you today.

I note that there are a number of new members who have joined the committee since I last appeared before you in October 2010. I look forward to continuing to work with you.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to contribute to the five-year review of the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons. This is an excellent opportunity to explore how well the code is working and how it might be improved.

I've previously worked with the committee to provide input on possible amendments to the code. In particular, I was pleased to see that many of the suggestions I made for changes to the gift provisions were adopted by the House of Commons in June 2009.

I also submitted suggested amendments largely to do with the disclosure and inquiry provisions of the code, and included draft language to the committee in March and October 2010. With the view to taking a comprehensive approach, my current submission does include these proposals.

As requested by the chair, I've provided a written submission to the committee recommending various amendments to the code for your consideration. They are designed to strengthen and clarify the code's provisions. I plan to make this submission available on my office website tomorrow. In my presentation today I will provide some context for these recommendations, which I have developed based on my experience administering the code since 2007, and highlight several in particular.

I make several recommendations with respect to the administration of the code. I've noted, for instance, that the code does not impose deadlines for members to complete the initial compliance process on their annual reviews. This sometimes results in delays of many months. I'm suggesting that the code should be amended to include a 120-day deadline for completing the initial compliance process and a 30-day deadline for completing the annual review process, with discretion for the commissioner to extend the deadline if appropriate.

Imposing deadlines will underline the importance of members achieving compliance with the code in a timely manner. Moreover, introducing a mandatory requirement that new members meet with my office within that 120-day period will enhance our current efforts to ensure members are fully aware of how the code applies to their personal situation.

I'm also seeking authority to issue guidelines and standard forms under the code without having to obtain the approval of the House of Commons. These tools can help members better understand their obligations under the code and streamline and expedite administrative processes. The approval requirement set out in section 30 has, in the past, caused significant delays, and I believe also limits the independence of my office, so I recommend that this requirement be removed.

Several other recommended amendments are aimed at encouraging and enforcing compliance with the code. To ensure that all members fulfill their reporting obligations in a timely way, I recommend that the commissioner be given the authority to impose administrative monetary penalties up to $500 for failures to do so, as is done in the Conflict of Interest Act, and to make notices of penalty public.

I also encourage the committee to consider whether imposing sanctions for substantive breaches of certain provisions to the code would further strengthen this aspect of the code. I believe it would provide a transparent and effective alternative to conducting an inquiry where the facts of a situation are not at issue. I also propose that new compliance obligations be added to the code. In previous reports I have raised the suggestion that members be prohibited from personally soliciting funds where doing so would place them in a conflict of interest. I also believe that broader disclosure and recusal obligations are needed to prohibit members from furthering the private interests of relatives or friends.

I believe that sponsored travel should be subject to an acceptability test, the same as other gifts and benefits. This would ensure that members do not accept travel when it could reasonably be seen to have been given to influence them.

My recommendations to the committee also include amendments related to the disclosure and declaration of gifts. Despite ongoing efforts to raise awareness of the code's gift revisions, I have found that the gift provisions are still not clearly understood, and gifts are not consistently reported. Many members mistakenly believe that gifts are automatically acceptable if they are valued at less than $500. In fact, the value is not a criterion of acceptability; it is the threshold for public declaration.

I have come to the conclusion that the best way to deal with gifts and other benefits would be to significantly lower the threshold for public disclosure below which gifts and benefits could not reasonably be seen to have been given to influence members. This would mean that almost all gifts would need to be disclosed to my office and publicly declared. I recommend that this threshold be set at $30. All gifts valued at $30 or more, or with a total value of $30 or more from a single source in 12-month period, would have to be disclosed to my office. If acceptable, they would be publicly declared. That is the add-on here.

I recognize that there is a significant difference between the current threshold of $500 and the $30 threshold I propose. I believe that in making this change, members would pay more attention to the question of whether gifts they receive are acceptable. This change would ensure transparency and would also enable my office to assist members in adhering to the acceptability provisions of the code. We would be working on the assumption that a gift valued at less than $30 would not reasonably be seen to have been given to influence a member. Token gifts below that amount would not be subject to an acceptability test.

One area of gifts that has been particularly challenging is the acceptance by members of invitations to meetings, receptions, and information sessions at which meals or refreshments are offered. There appears to be a widely held perception among members that these gifts are not covered by the code or that they could, in all cases, be considered customary hospitality. I do not read the code that way. I would ask that members consider whether they wish to amend the rules relating to invitations to events where meals or refreshments are offered.

Other recommendations in my submission to the committee seek to improve the provisions of the code relating to inquiries. These amendments would do several things.

First, they would permit me to make public my reasons for not proceeding to an inquiry after a preliminary review, when the allegation that prompted the review is in the public domain and making my reasons public is in the public interest.

Second, they would require members who request an inquiry to refrain from commenting publicly on the matter until I have confirmed that my office has received the request and I have notified the member who is the subject of the request.

Third, they would help me obtain the information I need to carry out my compliance and investigative roles, by giving me express power to summon witnesses and compel documents. They would also require that I be given direct access to any document requested from the House of Commons.

Finally, I'd like to address the different procedural requirements under the act and the code so as to explicitly permit me to issue a single report on investigations I conduct simultaneously under both regimes.

Another set of recommendations in my submission to the committee is aimed at harmonizing the Conflict of Interest Act and the conflict of interest code to ensure consistency of language and process. The fact that these two regimes have similar, but not identical, provisions is a source of confusion, particularly for those members who are also ministers or parliamentary secretaries and are subject to both regimes. I recommend that Parliament consider harmonizing the act and the code where appropriate.

My final recommendations are in the area of political interests and partisan behaviour.

Political conduct is largely beyond the scope of both the code and the act. Still, I believe that there is a need to address the confusion resulting from the lack of clear rules governing the ethical aspects of politicians' partisan behaviour. I would suggest that the House of Commons consider implementing a separate code of conduct to address the political conduct of members and their staff.

As I mentioned earlier, the amendments I propose are based on my experience of the past five years. In developing them, I have sought to identify and address the main issues that have created challenges in the effective administration of the conflict of interest code for members of the House of Commons.

My remarks today merely serve to highlight some of the recommendations I have proposed in my written submission.

The submission itself provides greater detail on what I am proposing. If required, I would be pleased to provide the committee with draft language for any of the areas I have raised, where I have not already done so.

I believe these amendments will, if adopted, strengthen the code, and help maintain and enhance public confidence and trust in the integrity of members.

Mr. Chair, I hope that after its study the committee will see fit to recommend that the House adopt these recommendations.

I will be happy to answer any of the committee's questions.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Joe Preston

Thank you very much. That was very well done on the overview.

We will go first to Mr. Albrecht, who will have seven minutes.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Harold Albrecht Kitchener—Conestoga, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Madam Dawson and your team, for being here today. Thanks for your work on our behalf. Thanks for your efforts at outreach to the different caucuses to help us try to understand the code and the complexities that are there.

I think you will find a great degree of agreement on much of your report, and probably some concerns on other parts.

By the very fact that I'm going to recommendation number 9 might imply that I'm not too concerned about some of the ones prior to that, although some of my colleagues might be. I'd like to ask some questions regarding recommendation 9. Before I do that, I would like to read a bit of the preamble in your report, because it is important to understand where I'm coming from in my question later on.

You indicate:

The practice of sponsored travel, where an individual, an organization or a country funds travel by a Member to attend a particular conference, promote a regional company or interest or visit a region, is permitted under the Code and is specifically excluded from the acceptability test under the gift provisions. There is a striking paradox here, whereby an inexpensive gift from an organization seeking to influence a Member would not be acceptable, but a trip to a foreign locale sponsored by the same organization would be permitted, without question or scrutiny.

It is that last part with which I would take issue. It would be my contention that it is subject to scrutiny, because currently for all foreign travel there is a pretty stringent requirement that the member who has engaged in that travel needs to file a report within a certain period of time after he returns. In that context, it's certainly open to public scrutiny.

You go on in the last paragraph to indicate:

Adding an acceptability test would put to rest any concerns over whether the sponsored travel could reasonably be seen to have been given to influence a Member in the course of their duties. If travel is acceptable under the new test, the current practice of making a public declaration and providing supporting documents should be continued.

I certainly endorse that.

My concern with this recommendation is that it appears to put a very subjective evaluation on what foreign travel might include. I would be interested in having some input from you as to what kinds of criteria you would implement to have an acceptability test that would go actually further than what is currently there with the public being able to scrutinize the fact that a member travelled to country ABC for a certain purpose.

I'd be interested in your feedback on some of those initial questions.

You indicated earlier, to be fair, that you're happy to provide draft language. Maybe I'm getting ahead of that, but I want to be up front with my initial concerns about this issue because it does seem to be very subjective and may be difficult to get a handle on.

11:15 a.m.

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

Mary Dawson

The interesting thing is that I have had some experience in applying a conflict test when a member is a parliamentary secretary or a minister. Whenever that situation arises, the sponsored travel is not excluded from the gift provisions of the act. It is excluded from the gift provisions of the code. Therefore it is doable.

I've also observed that in the case of ministers and parliamentary secretaries, there is a higher level of chance there would be some kind of a conflict because they have specific executive obligations. That is not to say that on occasion there may be some conflict with a member, for example, if in a committee or something he were dealing with some particular subject matter having to do with the country that was sponsoring his travel. I don't think those situations would arise very frequently, but to be consistent with what's happening to ministers and parliamentary secretaries, I'm asking whether there shouldn't be some kind of scrutiny of whether there's a conflict when these trips are accepted.

I agree with you that the fact they're made public goes a good way to putting those into the public domain, but what our office would do would be to exert some more scrutiny on what exactly that MP is involved in to see whether there is some specific issue there.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Harold Albrecht Kitchener—Conestoga, ON

I'm having difficulty grasping how it would be perceived as a potential conflict.

For example, if I'm a member of a particular committee and I travel to a country to understand that country better, so that I can do my duty in a more informed way as a parliamentarian, I'm having difficulty understanding how anyone, the public included, would see that as somehow a conflict of interest in terms of educating myself to do my job more effectively.

11:15 a.m.

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

Mary Dawson

Yes. I don't think it will happen very often. I really think....

I can't make up a situation now, but I'm just thinking that if some really expensive trip were given to some MP, and there were some piece of legislation there that favoured a particular country, then maybe there could be a conflict.

As I said, it would happen much more frequently with a parliamentary secretary or a minister. I don't think this is going to give grief to too many MPs if you make this change. It just adds a level of scrutiny.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Harold Albrecht Kitchener—Conestoga, ON

Okay.

How much time do I have, Mr. Chair?

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Joe Preston

Two minutes.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Harold Albrecht Kitchener—Conestoga, ON

Okay. I want to share my time with my colleague Mr. Lukiwski.

May 31st, 2012 / 11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

And I know that my colleague Mr. Kerr will take the second round, so just quickly, I'd like to pick up on what Harold was talking about in terms of the subjectivity of some of your recommendations. To me it comes down to, in many cases, the matter of definition.

I have some difficulty with some of your recommendations, and I'll give you two quick examples.

Your recommendation six states:

That the Code be amended by adding prohibitions against personal solicitation of funds by Members where to do so could raise concerns relating to furthering private interests.

Would this prohibit MPs from participating in charity fundraising events, such as telethons and things like that? I mean, where do you draw the line?

I'll give you another example with respect to the definition of “friend”, and that's in recommendation seven, which states as follows:

That sections 8, 9 and 10 of the Code be broadened to include a prohibition against Members furthering the private interest of a relative or friend.

Well, “relatives” are easy to define, but how do you define “friend”? You know, what is a friend, what is an acquaintance?

You go on to talk about friends in recommendation eight in terms of a prohibition against participating in any discussion, debate, or whatever that might further the private interest of a friend.

That's almost impossible to really enforce. How do you define who is a friend and who is merely an acquaintance—or somebody you might have run into at a cocktail reception?

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Harold Albrecht Kitchener—Conestoga, ON

Yes: my NDP friends.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

How do you plan to enforce this when it's almost unenforceable?