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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.

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

Mary Dawson

It's five years, actually. It just seems like seven.

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

It seems like more, I know.

How many breaches of the code have you been able to conclude?

11:40 a.m.

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

Mary Dawson

I think it was five. Oh, breaches; sorry.

11:40 a.m.

Eppo Maertens Director, Reports and Investigations, Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

There were two inquiries that we completed under the code.

There were five inquires that we conducted. In two of those we found breaches, and in three we didn't.

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

In recommendation 14, you would like to be able to tell the public as to why you were unable to complete an investigation, and publicly release the reasons for not pursuing the matter?

11:40 a.m.

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

Mary Dawson

That addresses the issue of misinformation that's put out. It happens, on occasion, that somebody will send me a request for an investigation, and their whole purpose in sending it is to blacken somebody's name—not always, of course, but sometimes. All I'm asking for there, when there's misinformation out there, is a way I can cover it. I am prohibited from saying anything about it.

The other case is when something absolutely does not fall within my mandate.

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

And you need to be able to say that?

11:40 a.m.

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

Mary Dawson

I'd like to be able to say that.

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Yes. We want to work with you on this. You're the ethics watchdog.

11:40 a.m.

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

You are there to make sure that the public has some confidence that MPs are not being overly influenced by one group or another.

11:40 a.m.

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

I guess one of my concerns is, is there not a risk of trivializing that particular role in chasing those egg salad sandwiches around, when really what I think folks are concerned about is MPs taking very expensive trips to lodges or something that would look like a privilege given to a politician that the average person would never expect in their daily work? I guess that's my concern, and maybe you're hearing that concern from members on the committee.

The Prime Minister went to a reception last night of a wildlife association. I don't think he was unduly influenced by being there.

Reporting each of those out, do you see the risk there of trivializing the matter?

11:40 a.m.

Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner

Mary Dawson

I agree with you. I agree with you that it's a difficult question, and I don't know how to solve it exactly, because I don't know what I'm dealing with, but I'm starting to learn.

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Okay.

I think you're going to see some recommendations from us.

11:40 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Joe Preston

Thank you.

Go ahead, Madam Turmel.

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Nycole Turmel NDP 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 NDP 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 Conservative Joe Preston

Thank you, Madam Turmel.

Mr. Zimmer, go ahead.

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

Conservative

Bob Zimmer Conservative 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 Conservative 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...?