Mr. Speaker, a main feature of the 1993 election campaign was a promise by the Liberal Party to establish new standards of ethics. Well, it has certainly done that.
The Prime Minister intervened with a crown corporation to benefit a business of which he had once been a part owner. At least three ministers have been forced from office for conflicts of interest. A fourth has been given safe refuge as ambassador to Denmark.
As recently as this week, the Minister of Canadian Heritage broke the guidelines in such a way that according to the rules she should resign, but the Prime Minister, going against his own rules, chose to protect his friend.
Now the government proposes new legislation, establishing new ethics commissioners whose appointments can be controlled by the government majority.
The government has lived on loopholes. When the loopholes were not large enough, it enlarged them.
Remember the observation on Shawinigate by Gordon Robertson, the distinguished former clerk of the Privy Council, who wrote the first conflict of interest guidelines for Prime Minister Pearson. Mr. Robertson noted that there had been no specific provisions governing the prime minister because it never occurred to anybody that a prime minister's actions would require guidelines, not until this government made a show of appointing an ethics counsellor and then made a sham of that office by having it report not to Parliament, as promised, but to the Prime Minister.
The most notorious loosening of the rules involved the so-called blind management trust. For decades, cabinet ministers in the House were required to put their assets in an absolutely blind trust. One made a choice. If one pursued one's private interests, one stayed out of cabinet. If one served the public interest, one cut off all contact with one's private assets.
This government changed that rule deliberately. It deliberately broke the separation between private interests and the public interest. It created a system where a minister could look after his or her private interests at the very same time he or she purported to act in the public interest.
As a footnote, but to make matters worse, the Prime Minister told the House that system had been used by ministers of former governments. He knows that is not true, but he has not had the rectitude to correct the record of Parliament.
I do not know why the government let ministers abandon blind trusts. I do not know if that was done specifically to meet the requirements of the member for LaSalle—Émard, but he was certainly quick to take advantage of the looser system.
A few weeks ago, and under pressure, the member for LaSalle—Émard announced that he was divesting himself from his giant shipping company, Canada Steamship Lines. He admitted that during the time he was minister of finance he held 12 separate private meetings with his company officials regarding business activities of the multinational private company that he personally owned.
For the record, I do not believe he acted to enrich himself. He came here as a millionaire and he did not need more money. F. Scott Fitzgerald noted that the rich are not like the rest of us. He probably did it because he thought the rules that applied to others should not apply to him.
Whatever the motive, the government broke the wall between private and public interests. Even the member for LaSalle—Émard now admits that system fails the test of appearing to be fair.
What is clear is that this tailor-made system was not recommended by outside experts. On the contrary. Mr. Justice Parker, who conducted the public formal inquiry in the Sinclair Stevens affair, warned specifically against this type of arrangement.
It is worth noting how Justice Parker, in his report, defined conflict of interest. It is, he said:
--[a] situation in which a minister of the Crown has knowledge of a private economic interest that is sufficient to influence the exercise of his or her public duties and responsibilities.
A minister need not act on that knowledge. Justice Parker did not find that Mr. Stevens acted on his knowledge.
Mr. Stevens was required to resign because it was alleged that he had done nothing more than what the member for LaSalle—Émard has admitted to doing 12 separate times.
That was the standard in Canada before this Liberal government deliberately lowered the bar. Simple knowledge of a private economic interest was enough to constitute a conflict of interest.
For eight years, the member for LaSalle—Émard regularly acquired such knowledge. That is not in dispute. He has admitted it himself.
According to the Prime Minister, Justice Parker's definition of conflict of interest is at the heart of the government's code of conduct for ministers. He has repeatedly said that in the House.
Former Liberal Prime Minister John Turner said in Parliament, on May 12, 1986:
In public administration a Minister has the burden of proof, the duty to show that what he is doing is beyond reproach. The burden of proof is not on Parliament. It is not on the opposition, nor the media. The burden of proof is on the Minister.
The new looser system of a managed blind trust does have its own clear rules. Canadians have a right to know whether even those rules were respected.
Article 7 of the agreement stipulates that:
If at any time whilst this agreement remains in effect, it appears that an extraordinary corporate event is proposed or threatened which might have a material effect on the shares or assets, the supervisors may consult with and obtain the advice, direction or instruction of the public officer holder....
The then minister of finance was allowed to be briefed only if: first, Canada Steamship Lines had an extraordinary corporate event; second, it had a material effect on the assets; and third, the supervisor was unable to handle it on his own. We are asked to believe that happened 12 times in eight years.
The Prime Minister says that while he has no knowledge of the subject of those 12 meetings, he is satisfied that each of them met the criteria of article 7. Why? Because Howard Wilson said so, the member for LaSalle--Émard agreed, and the Prime Minister declined to do his duty and find out if his new loose rules were respected or were broken.
The member for LaSalle--Émard says that he recused himself, he stepped aside from his ministry or the cabinet whenever there was a possibility of conflict. However more than the vast majority of companies, Canada Steamship Lines is critically dependent on a wide range of federal laws and regulations, including the tax system. Was the then minister of finance outside the room whenever taxes were discussed, or environmental laws, or shipping regulations, or safety standards, or changes in international laws or treaties?
The then minister's first budget in February 1994 announced the closure of tax havens. However between February and June 1994, the legislation that gave effect to the budget was changed. The Barbados tax haven was left open. Later changes were introduced that allowed the subsidiaries of Canadian corporations in Barbados to enjoy the same tax status as the parent company.
To follow the rules, the former finance minister would have had to recuse himself from all those decisions, some of which were at the heart of his own first budget. Perhaps that is what he did. However a vice-president of Canada Steamship Lines said on the CBC program Disclosure that the then minister's company shifted operations to Barbados in that period because of, and I quote directly,“changes in Canadian tax rules” .
We will not know for sure whether the rules were followed until the member for LaSalle--Émard makes public the full list of meetings he held with Canada Steamship Lines while he was minister of finance, who he met with, when he met with them and what they discussed.
Most members of the House accept the need for a conflict of interest code for individual members of Parliament. We will debate the details of the bill in days to come. However many of us also believe that this focus upon ordinary members of Parliament is designed to divert attention away from the flagrant conflicts of interest which have characterized so many ministers of the government, starting at the very top.
If that dark shadow is to be dispelled, the member for LaSalle--Émard must stop hiding the facts. He must be honest about what went on in those 12 secret meetings, what were the “extraordinary corporate events”, what were the “material effects” on his business, and whether and how, having been briefed 12 times, he stood aside from ministerial or cabinet decision which affected the interest of the multi-million dollar company he owns. Leading the country requires moral authority, not just delegates' votes.
I have outlined today fundamental questions of integrity which must be answered by the member for LaSalle--Émard and any government that expects to be taken seriously on questions of conflict of interest.