Critics say Oliphant recommendations don’t go far enough

OTTAWA – Justice Jeffrey Oliphant warned Monday that without changes to Canada’s Conflict of Interest Act, other federal politicians could make the same kinds of ethical breaches that he found former prime minister Brian Mulroney did.

"Canadians… are entitled to expect their politicians to conserve and enhance public confidence and trust in the integrity, objectivity, and impartiality of government," Oliphant wrote in the four-volume report that concluded his commission of inquiry into Mulroney’s business and financial dealings with lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber.

"Mr. Mulroney’s actions failed to enhance public confidence in the integrity of public office holders."

Oliphant found that Mulroney violated the ethics code that guided parliamentarians at the time; that he acted inappropriately in failing to disclose his dealings with Schreiber and payments he received from Schreiber; and that Mulroney’s business dealings with Schreiber "were not appropriate."

Oliphant praised the current Conflict of Interest Act and its companion Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons but the former Associate Chief Justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba said the circumstances of Mulroney’s dealings with Schreiber may not be unique and could happen to another politician.

"Put bluntly, if the events that prompted this commission of inquiry were to occur today, I am not persuaded that (Parliament’s) Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner would learn about them because there is no process or procedure in place that would allow her to detect them."

Some, though, said Oliphant wasted an opportunity to go much further with his recommendations for change.

"Ultimately, no amount of conflict of interest codes are going to teach somebody the difference between right and wrong," said NDP MP Pat Martin. "You could have a conflict of interest code as thick as a Manhattan phone book and somebody who is willing to violate it will."

As for the government, it did not take a position one way or the other on Oliphant’s report.

"It makes a number of recommendations and the government will be reviewing those recommendations," Justice Minister Rob Nicholson told the House of Commons.

Oliphant said the existing Conflict of Interest Act contains "ambiguities" that may make it difficult for politicians and senior government officials "to understand the extent of their legal obligations."

He called on the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner to set up ethics training programs specifically for ministers and encouraged all party leaders to provide similar training for MPs. He said the Conflict of Interest Act ought to apply to conduct Canadian politicians engage in not only while they are in Canada but elsewhere in the world.

Oliphant also said the Conflict of Interest Act ought to apply to politicians after they leave office and it ought to prohibit apparent or perceived conflicts of interest in addition to real ones.

The advocacy group Democracy Watch applauded the recommendations but said more changes ought to be considered.

"Oliphant has unfortunately ignored many other loopholes that allow for secret donations and lobbying, and unethical actions by part-time cabinet staff, MPs and their staff, and others in federal politics," Democracy Watch co-ordinator Duff Conacher said. "The system is the scandal, and until the system is cleaned up, scandalous situations will continue to occur regularly."

Justice Jeffrey Oliphant’s ethics changes:

As part of his commission of inquiry into the business and financial dealings of former prime minister Brian Mulroney and lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber, Justice Jeffrey Oliphant argued the following changes ought to be made to Canada’s Conflict of Interest Act:

– Expand the definition of "employment" to include providing services as a consultant.

– Revise the definition of "conflict of interest" to include "an apparent conflict of interest."

– Require public office holders to disclose the identities of those with whom they seek, negotiate or accept an offer of employment.

– Extend the actions covered by the Conflict of Interest Act to conduct that occurs outside Canada.

– Require ministers to take ethics training from Parliament’s ethics commissioner.

– Force public office holders to uphold the Conflict of Interest Act even after they leave office.

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