Evidence of meeting #84 for Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was office.

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MPs speaking

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Mario Dion  Nominee for the position of Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, As an Individual

December 12th, 2017 / 3:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Bob Zimmer

I call the meeting to order of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. This is meeting number 84, pursuant to Standing Order 111.1(1), on the certificate of nomination of Mario Dion to the position of Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, referred to the committee on Monday, December 11, 2017.

I'd like to welcome you today, Mr. Dion, and you have 10 minutes. Thank you.

3:30 p.m.

Mario Dion Nominee for the position of Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, As an Individual

Thank you very much.

Mr. Chairperson, members of the committee, I am truly honoured to appear before you this afternoon to discuss my nomination as the next and second Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. I sincerely hope that, after we've had a chance to discuss my credentials and my plans, my nomination will be approved by the House of Commons.

As you know, this office was established some 10 years ago as an independent officer of the House of Commons to provide assistance to appointed and elected officials in ensuring that conflicts between their private interests and their public duties are prevented. This was deemed necessary by Parliament to maintain and to further enhance the confidence of Canadians in the House of Commons and its members, as well public office holders.

The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner is responsible for administering two texts: the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons and the Conflict of Interest Act. The code, which was adopted in 2004 and subsequently amended several times, applies to the 338 members of Parliament. The act governs the conduct of current and former public office holders, including ministers, ministers of state, parliamentary secretaries, staff members, political advisers and the members appointed by the Governor in Council. In her last annual report, Commissioner Dawson, estimated that there were 2,254 incumbents on March 31.

The role of the Office of the Commissioner is first and foremost preventive, although the Commissioner has the necessary powers to investigate when a breach of the code or the act is alleged. This is in fact what the Commissioner has done a number of times since her appointment in 2007.

The main responsibilities of the office are to provide advice to individuals whose conduct is governed by the code or by the act, to review the confidential reports that they are required to submit, to establish compliance measures, to maintain a public registry and confidential files, and to administer a penalty regime under the act.

I understand that you've had an opportunity to consult my curriculum vitae. As you know, I am currently chairperson of the Immigration and Refugee Board. I have played a number of roles in the public sector since joining it as a legal adviser. I am originally from Montreal.

However, I am not a lawyer in Montreal. I left that city in 1973 and have been in Ottawa ever since.

My family moved to the national capital region shortly before I entered law school at the University of Ottawa.

I am married and the father of three adults now in their thirties. I chose the public sector originally because I wanted to contribute to issues that matter to society as a whole, as opposed to purely personal and private interests. I've always been intellectually curious, and I also wanted to ensure that I would not be restricted to the same duties for the duration of my career.

I have been privileged to be able to work in areas that are important to Canadians and that also correspond to my personal strengths as a jurist and as a leader of professionals in the public sector. I spent a total of 18 years at the Department of Justice in several senior positions, including that of associate deputy minister, and four years as assistant deputy minister with the Correctional Service of Canada.

I have been a deputy head since 2003. I've been an agent of Parliament for four years as Public Sector Integrity Commissioner between 2011 and 2014, as well as head of two independent tribunals, the national Parole Board and now the Immigration and Refugee Board.

My most important achievement is, without any doubt, the finalization of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2005, while I was the deputy head responsible for the resolution of issues arising out of this terrible chapter of our history.

I am therefore a career civil servant, proud to have served Canada and my fellow Canadians. This is what we have in common, whether as members of Parliament, senators or public servants.

When I saw that Mary Dawson's term was coming to an end about a year ago, I did not apply, as I had a number of objectives to finalize at the IRB. I only decided to apply late this summer after having finalized an action plan to face an almost unprecedented increase in the number of refugee claims being made at this point in time. We've developed a very organized action plan to try to maximize the use of our resources and to increase the number of claims that we are able to deal with, and we have increased by 25% the number of claims compared with last year, with very few additional injections of resources.

I also wanted to recruit a few key senior managers at the IRB before thinking about going anywhere else.

On August 18, when I sat in front of my computer—I think it was a Saturday or a Sunday—I decided it was time to apply for the position of commissioner.

Even though there wasn't a deadline per se, they were saying they would start to review candidates on July 28. They said that if you wish to apply, you nevertheless can do so afterwards—on the poster itself—so I applied. I got a call in mid-November, basically to invite me to an interview. I was interviewed less than three weeks ago, and here I am today.

I think I have the attributes to meet the requirements of this position that is very important for our democracy.

For 30 years I have been leading groups of professionals in the federal government, jurists, but also people who work in the social sciences and economics. I have the reputation of being a good leader of professionals. I enjoy running teams, planning things, and getting results. I like working on concrete and meaningful things. I love being independent, although I understand that I must be accountable.

For over 10 years, I was the associate deputy minister for Justice John Tait, the first deputy minister to give me those powers. As for the two deputy ministers who followed, they sent me all the conflict of interest issues within the Department of Justice. I have had to make hundreds of decisions about requests for outside activities, publishing papers or articles, and outside legal practices. I had to deal with codes that were constantly changing, and I did so between 1992 and 2003.

I also have some experience with investigations. When I was the public sector integrity commissioner, we conducted about 100 investigations. Those investigations often involved senior officials and took place in a difficult climate. Of course, when someone is being investigated, they are not particularly happy about it. So I had to face very difficult situations that had to be carried out with great care and discernment.

The position of commissioner also includes an education component, meaning the education of the people who are covered by the code and the act, but also the education of the general public. Both at the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner and at the Department of Justice, I led a lot of sessions that focused on education, training and teaching things that are often complex. It gives me great pleasure to try to simplify complex things without compromising the accuracy of the systems I'm trying to explain.

This is essentially why I believe I'm qualified for this position. I would like to make a direct contribution as Canada's second Ethics Commissioner, and I hope that I will enjoy your confidence to do so.

It's always difficult to make statements about one's priorities when you are not fully informed. As you know, everything that Ms. Dawson's office does is confidential, so I don't actually know much. All I know is what I see on the web and what I read in the media, so it's hard for me to launch a very informed description of what my priorities would be.

Based on what I have read—I did allude earlier to the education aspect—I think that's very important. The code and the act are very complex, in my view. Mary Dawson said the same thing three years ago when she appeared before this committee. They are complex. Therefore, it's hard to imagine that every public office holder is able to essentially, within a few hours, grasp precisely what is expected of her or him.

I would like to do more education in order to disseminate the information as well as possible. I believe that people are fundamentally honest, that people do not get up in the morning with the intent of breaching the law. Therefore, it's important to make sure they understand what the expectations are. I would like to do more of that.

One of the things I've done in several positions that I've occupied is to focus on trying to increase efficiency, to optimize the use of resources the government makes available to us. Not knowing much about the current operations, I sense that maybe there is potentially more room for increased use of technology, which I would be looking at.

Mr. Chairperson, I once again thank you for inviting me to meet with the committee this afternoon. I will be pleased to answer any questions that members may have for me.

Thank you very much.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Bob Zimmer

Thank you, Mr. Dion.

It sounds like a good place to start: trust and efficiency.

We'll start off with Mr. Saini, for seven minutes.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

Raj Saini Liberal Kitchener Centre, ON

Good afternoon, Mr. Dion. Thank you very much for coming here this afternoon. We want to assure you that we will greet you very warmly here. We appreciate the three decades of service that you have given to this country. I think that's a phenomenal achievement.

You spoke a bit about education. The context you were speaking of was your own education in terms of the conflict of interest office. There may be some Canadians who may not understand the role of the office, and they may not understand the responsibilities. They may hear it once in a while in the media.

Do you think it's important for Canadians to understand? What do you see as your role in educating Canadians going forward?

3:40 p.m.

Nominee for the position of Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, As an Individual

Mario Dion

I think it's important that Canadians understand that there are a number of mechanisms, institutions that exist to continue to improve. We are already seen as a model of democracy, a model of integrity as well. Canada is already very well positioned, but the average Canadian probably does not appreciate fully the institutions that do exist, in addition to this office, to ensure that this remains so. There is a solid foundation, essentially, to ensure that we continue to be solid and to further increase the probity, the integrity of our elected officials.

Albeit that everything, in particular, that the office deals with is confidential, I've had a media presence in previous positions. To the extent that it would be possible and compatible with the duties of this position, I have a natural tendency; I like doing media, unlike several of my former colleagues. This position has clear limitations, of course. This is not, first and foremost, a public relations position. To the extent possible, I would like to use the media as well to try to increase the understanding of the position and its role in maintaining integrity within government, within the legislative branch. I would be looking at that.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

Raj Saini Liberal Kitchener Centre, ON

I want to ask you about the comparison with your current role as the chairperson of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. The decisions that you make on a daily basis have a huge impact on people's lives. In this new role you would be carrying similar weight. You would be making decisions on people's careers, their reputations, and potentially their lives.

How has your experience as chairperson of the board prepared you or will help guide your decisions in this new role?

3:40 p.m.

Nominee for the position of Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, As an Individual

Mario Dion

I think decision-making is a discipline. It comes with the ability to analyze facts in an impartial manner, in an objective manner. It is transportable from one area to another.

As chairperson of the IRB, I do not actually make decisions involving refugees and immigrants, but I'm responsible for overseeing, for ensuring that we have the tools for our members. We have about 250 members who make decisions, who are appointed by the Governor in Council or are public servants, depending on which division they work in. My job is to make sure that they have the tools to be in a position to make objective decisions, to make reasonable decisions, and so on and so forth. I have experience in crafting guidelines, interpretation guides, and jurisprudential guidelines.

The ethics commissioner actually makes all the decisions. In this instance, if I'm appointed, although that's a marked difference from what I'm doing now, it's identical to what I was doing as Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, making all the decisions myself.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

Raj Saini Liberal Kitchener Centre, ON

Now, after three decades of running, I'm sure, very different departments in the public service, you've had a vast amount of experience, lessons learned. What lessons have you learned? If you could, give us some examples of how you would bring those lessons of what you've learned to this new role.

3:40 p.m.

Nominee for the position of Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, As an Individual

Mario Dion

I speak often about Pareto's law. I don't know if you've ever heard about Pareto. Essentially, he was a mathematician. One of his theories is that in order to accomplish a certain objective, you basically invest 20% of the time in order to accomplish 80% of the objective. The last 20% takes a lot of energy and effort. Therefore, perfection...the best is the enemy of the good. That's what I've learned. It has to be commensurate to the importance of the issue. Everything cannot always be perfect.

In our society, timeliness is also a very important reality. I've tried to classify, in several positions, what is important, what is slightly less important, to have a system and an approach that actually reflects the importance of what is at stake, and not to treat every matter in an identical way because every matter is not equally important. People should not have to wait several years in order to know the outcome when they make a complaint or when they apply for something, irrespective of what it is in government.

Often we are very risk averse in the public sector, and this creates inefficiencies. That's one lesson.

Another lesson is that, in a society where we have knowledge workers, people really appreciate being given the trust and confidence of their superiors that they know what they're doing, that they are given the tools to do their work, that there is oversight. They really appreciate not being micromanaged. That's a second lesson.

I have several little lessons like that, but I think it would be inappropriate this afternoon to go on further.

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Raj Saini Liberal Kitchener Centre, ON

As my final question, you talked about efficiency and how important efficiency is to you. I know in this new role, you may not be up to speed exactly on how the office works. As you said, you had to read about it in the media.

As an overview, there must be some things that you know already you find compelling, something you would like to take a leadership role on, or some aspect of the office generally where you feel that efficiencies could be improved.

Can you maybe comment on that?

3:45 p.m.

Nominee for the position of Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, As an Individual

Mario Dion

As soon as I am appointed, if I am appointed, I'll be speaking with Mary Dawson. She was a colleague of mine for several years, by the way. I know Mary Dawson very well, and as soon as I am appointed, if I am, I'll be talking to her.

I have the organizational chart. It's a small office. It has 48 individuals working in it at this point in time, so that's much smaller than the Department of Justice, where we had 5,000 people when I was there. It seems to be well organized. I know Ms. Dawson is a very well-organized person, but I would have a discussion with her to see how we can improve.

I've mentioned timeliness as one dimension. Another dimension is communications in a way that reflects the times, so not necessarily always by way of a letter. That would be another possible approach. Again, depending on the importance of the matter, sometimes you have to adapt the mode of communication to the importance of the matter as well.

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Raj Saini Liberal Kitchener Centre, ON

Thank you very much.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Bob Zimmer

Next up for seven minutes is Mr. Kent.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

Thank you very much, Chair.

Thank you very much, Mr. Dion, for being able to appear before us on such short notice.

By your application, I'm sure that you anticipate a very busy time in this office. Certainly, based on the performance of this Liberal government in the past couple of years, one might expect much to investigate.

We're told that Commissioner Dawson is working diligently on a couple of very important investigations that the House is concerned about, two involving the Prime Minister, and the most recent involving the finance minister, but I'm concerned by the word from her official spokesperson that there is nothing to compel her successor to complete investigations still under way or incomplete at the time of the transfer of authority.

I'm wondering if this committee could ask you to assure us that you will, in fact, complete those investigations that are or may be incomplete at the time of your taking office.

3:45 p.m.

Nominee for the position of Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, As an Individual

Mario Dion

What I'm able to assure you of is that it would, of course, be among the top priorities. I discussed the issue of prioritization a few minutes ago. Of course, it would be one of the first things I would attempt to review, the whole genesis of those investigations that you are mentioning. If they are not completed prior to my appointment, the entering into effect of my appointment, my job, my responsibility, would be to ensure.... Because I would own the final results, I therefore have to assess what has been done to date to determine whether I am supportive of that, but abandoning an investigation completely without reason is not something I would do. I don't think that would be appropriate by way of a process.

I have to do my own analysis. I have to make a decision as to whether anything needs to be redone, and whether there is anything incomplete, but I will work on those pending investigations, of course.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

You mentioned part of your learning process is informed by media coverage, and I'm sure you're aware that we in the official opposition are very concerned about the lack of meaningful consultation with opposition parties with regard to the appointment of a new commissioner. Basically the letter that we received a few days ago said take it or leave it. The deadline was Monday, and we are operating effectively under time allocation before the House rises, perhaps as early as tomorrow. Our quarrel is not with you because of that, but I'm sure you're aware of it.

Just in passing, the Liberal House leader on social media just an hour ago released details of the four members of the committee that interviewed you, I guess three weeks ago. Two of those members are in the Privy Council Office, one is the comptroller general of the Treasury Board of Canada, and the other is chief of staff to the President of the Treasury Board. Because the Prime Minister has had to recuse himself, and because other members of the Prime Minister's Office have had to recuse themselves, this could be seen as something of an imbalanced committee because, of course, as you mentioned, the commissioner's position was created by the House of Commons to serve Parliament, and the House is not represented in the Privy Council Office. That, again, gives us great concern.

That aside, it is undeniable that you've had a long and distinguished career in the public service with a couple of black marks associated with your leadership at different times as the leader of the more challenging organizations, agencies, and departments of government, but I wonder if you could speak to the specifics of the Auditor General's criticisms regarding your time and those two cases in the Integrity Commissioner's office?

3:50 p.m.

Nominee for the position of Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, As an Individual

Mario Dion

I'll try to be brief, of course, as the chairperson would appreciate I'm sure. You always have to bear in mind that much of what is the underpinning of those two reports is confidential. Anything that does not appear in the report is still confidential.

With those limitations, essentially under the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act the commissioner is appointed pursuant to that act. We were basically doing two things. They're still doing two things. Joe Friday, my successor, is responsible to receive complaints of wrongdoing and is responsible to receive allegations of reprisals for people who have disclosed wrongdoing in the past.

There is a provision in the act that says that if somebody wishes to lodge a complaint of wrongdoing that relates to the operation of the office itself, the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada, the Auditor General is responsible to handle these things. In other words, the Auditor General does exactly what the office would be doing vis-à-vis complaints made against other organizations. It's as a result of two distinct complaints, these investigations were launched by the Auditor General under the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act.

When I was appointed there—I said in 2011, and in fact I started on December 14, 2010—it was a few days after a scathing report, as journalists usually put it, by the Auditor General, in which the former Auditor General, Madam Fraser, basically.... I recall precisely what she said. She said she had absolutely no confidence in any policy or procedure that this office had been using in making determinations since its creation. She was recommending very strongly that the new commissioner essentially review each and every one of the 228 files that had been dealt with at that point in time in late 2010.

When I arrived as interim commissioner from a short period in the private sector—I did retire in 2009 and came back on December 14, 2010 as interim commissioner—I was faced with the situation that there was a 50% vacancy rate in the office. We did not actually know how many pending files there were because there was no system whatsoever. We had to attend to a number of things. We had a profound morale problem as well.

In terms of what the Auditor General dealt with in 2012-13 in these two complaints, I admit that we dropped these two balls essentially. I did not dispute the conclusion. The context was very difficult. My responsibility was that of a leader. I was not personally blamed for something I had done myself, but we had an investigator who basically had serious difficulties at that point in time with hundreds of days of unplanned absences. That was a factor as well, as I said in my response in the report.

It was an unfortunate combination of factors that led to these two reports having come to that conclusion. We did not do the work as we should have done it, but it was taking place in the middle of a crisis, essentially, involving hundreds of other files as well.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Bob Zimmer

Thank you, Mr. Kent.

Next we have Mr. Cullen for seven minutes.

3:55 p.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Thank you, Chair, and thank you, Mr. Dion, for appearing.

I share Mr. Kent's frustration with the process that we are engaged in right now. It sounds like you were interviewed a couple of weeks ago.

3:55 p.m.

Nominee for the position of Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, As an Individual

Mario Dion

Yes. I would say it will be three weeks tomorrow.

3:55 p.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Three weeks.... We were given notice just late last week from the government, and here you are today, with Parliament perhaps closing tomorrow. For such an important position to hire for, as you would agree, this may be expeditious, but it is not satisfactory to the opposition, as you can probably imagine. A single name on a letter is not consultation by anybody's definition that I know of.

I have a question for you. You may have said it in your opening comments, but perhaps it's more philosophical.... No, it's not philosophical; it's legal. Who do you believe the position of the Ethics Commissioner works for?

3:55 p.m.

Nominee for the position of Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, As an Individual

Mario Dion

It's Parliament, the House of Commons.

3:55 p.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

The concern, and I thought you might take the opportunity to address it in your opening comments, is that Mr. Ferguson's audit came in 2014. You'd been the commissioner for the public sector integrity office for how long by that point?

3:55 p.m.

Nominee for the position of Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, As an Individual

Mario Dion

The report was tabled on April 15, 2014, so it would have been three years after I came to the office.

3:55 p.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

The previous commissioner had some serious problems and left. It's not for your comment, but it's generally understood they left in some disgrace. The department was falling apart. There was, as you said, a scathing previous report from the Auditor General.

I'm quoting now from the AG's 2014 report, which said, “The lack of oversight by PSIC senior managers amounted to gross mismanagement”. Do you agree with that finding?