Canada

Sabrina Maddeaux: The Trudeau Liberals’ shrugging at WE ethics report proves the rot runs deep

The public fervour generated by the WE Charity affair should be used as an opportunity to clean Canada’s house

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Breaking with the hallowed tradition of government committees that putter along for years without producing any meaningful output, on Thursday the House ethics committee released a timely, pointed, and actually useful report.

Within its scathing 116 pages lies a list of 20 recommendations to reform Canada’s lobbying and conflict of interest laws, supported by all three major opposition parties. While they largely stem from the infamous WE Charity affair, they also touch upon other suspect pandemic funding decisions, including those for large ventilator contracts.

Unfortunately, the governing Trudeau Liberals aren’t on board. They attached a four-page dissenting opinion that rejects the committees’ 20 recommendations as either “unhelpful” or “outside the scope of this study.” They also include three recommendations of their own; ones that would be comical in their hollow inanity if the subject  weren’t of such importance to Canada’s democracy and national security.

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While the WE Charity debacle is the most highly publicized conflict of interest story in recent Canadian history, it’s far from the only one. This is because conflict of interest cases aren’t bugs of the Canadian political system, but a feature. One that’s systemically fuelled by our lack of strong regulation and oversight in the area.

The ethics committee presents good first steps toward cleaning out the widespread rot. They include not awarding government contracts to shell companies that lack assets in order to avoid liability, that senior public officials be accompanied by at least one staff member to any meeting with lobbyists with the purpose of taking notes, that due diligence reports on any contract or contribution agreement between the government and third party be mandatory, and the government review future volunteer programs to ensure they don’t undercut minimum wage laws. Overall, pretty common sense, non-partisan stuff.

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As for the Liberals, their first two recommendations suggest — in typical ambitionless bureaucratic form — that the ethics committee conduct further, more detailed reviews on conflict of interest and lobbying regulations. Presumably ones that would be impossible to complete before a rumoured fall election.

Their final recommendation requests the committee please stop “conducting parallel investigations with any independent Office of Parliament into the conduct of members of Parliament, either directly or by proxy.” In layperson’s terms: quit actively investigating any further Liberal wrongdoing.

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The WE affair is ultimately rather innocuous in the grand scheme of things considering it didn’t directly endanger our democracy, financial stability, or national security. However, Canada’s institutionalized blasé approach to ethics could do exactly that — if it hasn’t already.

You don’t have to dig deep to discover near ubiquitous conflicts of interest in Canadian politics. For example, more than one third of Canadian senators sit on public and private company boards, including those of gaming corporations that miraculously escape regulation time and time again, despite their alleged central role in laundering North America’s drug money. We also still allow large foreign donations to political campaigns and personal foundations, like Trudeau’s family foundation, which controversially accepted a $1 million donation from two Chinese businessmen in 2016. MPs and senators routinely accept free trips to China paid for by the Chinese government and pro-Beijing groups.

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The rot even infects our higher education system, responsible for much of the country’s scientific and technological research, as well as data collection. It’s rare to find a Canadian university untainted by a conflict of interest scandal stemming from donor overreach —  education’s version of meddlesome lobbyists. Half of Ontario’s medical schools are now named after wealthy donors and most lack comprehensive conflict of interest policies. The University of Toronto’s law school continues to face allegations of a conflict of interest in its hiring processes. We expose our future doctors and lawyers — some of whom will become public health officials and lawmakers — to conflict of interest from the very start of their careers.

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The public fervour generated by the WE Charity affair should be used as an opportunity to clean Canada’s house. Politicians certainly have the public support to do so, and now some solid recommendations to work with thanks to the ethics committee. If Liberals cared more about Canada’s future than their own, they wouldn’t hesitate to move forward quickly and aggressively.

Unfortunately for Canada, it seems protecting democracy will once again take a backseat to winning elections. As it turns out, conflicts of interest are as Canadian as maple syrup.

National Post

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