When Parliament returns to work today following its week-long Remembrance Day break, one thing is certain: “Skippy” will be back at it again – holding Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s feet to the fire.
“Skippy” is the improbable nickname for Pierre Poilievre, the four-term Conservative MP for the suburban Ottawa riding of Carleton, who relishes his role as a pit bull. In the latter stages of the Harper administration, his job was to defend the government and to savage the opposition. In opposition, Poilievre is the finance critic. The Conservatives do not contest the underlying principle of Morneau’s tax reform package – that middle-income earners should pay less tax and high-income earners more – but the minister himself is fair game.
Morneau, a wealthy businessman and first-time MP, provided the crack for Poilievre and others to drive in a wedge when he failed to take adequate precautions to protect himself and the Liberal government against allegations of conflict of interest.
Cabinet ministers are smothered in rules and regulations when it comes to their personal finances. They are bound by the strictures of the Conflict of Interest Act, by the “mandate letter” each receives from the prime minister setting out how the PM expects the minister to conduct himself or herself, and by a document known as the “Prime Minister’s Code” that establishes standards for all ministers to observe.
The core document, the Conflict of Interest Act, makes it seem simple. Ministers must disclose – but are free to do what they wish with – their principal residences, vacation properties, automobiles, RRSPs and government bonds. But they are required to divest themselves of “controlled assets” (essentially publicly traded equities and self-directed retirement plans). Divestiture is permitted in two ways: by selling the asset in an “arm’s length transaction,” or by placing it in a blind trust controlled by an independent trustee.
Morneau gave the opposition an opening, when instead of establishing a blind trust, initially he “sold” his interest in the family business, Morneau Shepell (which administers retirement plans), to a numbered company. Problem was, the numbered company was controlled by Morneau, making the “sale” something far short of arm’s length, and leaving the minister exposed to conflict allegations. He is now setting up a blind trust.
Overseeing the web of rules that ministers must follow is an independent officer of Parliament known as the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, who is elected by the Commons on the recommendation of the prime minister. The current commissioner is Mary Dawson, a retired associate deputy minister who was highly regarded for her skill in drafting complicated laws, including the 1982 Constitution Act and the Clarity Act of 2000, as well as the Supreme Court reference on same-sex marriage.
She was named to a seven-year term in 2007 and it has been extended at least twice. For the most part, hers has been a quiet shop. She responds to requests to investigate possible transgressions, but she does not initiate inquiries on her own initiative. She could have been more proactive in the Morneau case. She could have warned him that while transferring his interest in Morneau Shepell to the numbered company might seem at first glance to satisfy the Conflict of Interest Act, it would not pass the smell test. Mind you, Bill Morneau is no dummy. He should have detected the smell himself.
The government has had headhunters searching for months for a new ethics commissioner. They have interviewed potential recruits, but so far they have apparently been unable to produce a short list of acceptable candidates who are willing – or brave enough – to take on the job.
Morneau’s is not the only politically fraught case to come across Dawson’s desk. She has yet to dispose of a NDP complaint – about Justin Trudeau’s vacation with the Aga Khan last Christmas. What new ethics commissioner would want to inherit that political landmine – especially when she or he would be aware that “Skippy” Poilievre was probably poised to pounce?