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OPINION: Ethically Challenged Bill Morneau and the Conflict of Interest

By Dr. Shinder Purewal , 25 Jan, 2018

    Lately, Bill Morneau has come under fire for not disclosing the sale of stocks for family-owned business in Morneau-Shepell.

    One purpose of establishing conflict of interest laws and regulations is to ‘minimize the possibility of conflicts arising between the private interests and public duties of public office holders’. The intent of enforcing these guidelines, laws and regulations is more significant at the top echelons of the decision-making process because these individuals must be fully detached from any decisions benefiting their private interests, and, more importantly, for the integrity of our institutions.
    In the economic sphere, these guidelines are ever so important for the Finance Minister because he is the top official in charge of government financing, economic policy and financial regulations. A slight leak from such top official can cause turmoil in the financial markets. An anecdote from Jean Chretien’s political life illustrates the importance of secrecy in the office of the Finance Minister. After his first election in 1963, Chretien was appointed parliamentary secretary to Finance Minister Mitchell Sharp. These were days of the English language domination in the federal government and rookie MP Chretien was unilingual-French speaker. After their first meeting with finance officials about the upcoming budget, Minister Sharp told his protégé: “Jean, these meetings are very secret, so not a word outside the meeting.” Chretien replied, “Mitchell, don’t worry I did not understand a single word.”
    Bilingual Bill Morneau, however, is fluent in both official languages, and, unlike Jean Chretien, he is the Finance Minister, thus knowing fully what his department has discussed and what decisions are coming from his department. Lately, he has come under fire for not disclosing the sale of stocks for family-owned business in Morneau-Shepell. After their election victory, the Liberals introduced a ‘fair tax’ policy on December 7, 2015, that brought the markets down and, as a result, the shares of publicly-traded company Morneau-Shepell. It was recently revealed in the House of Commons that both Bill Morneau and his father had sold a large chunk of shares before the introduction of this legislation, thus making a hefty profit before the fall of share prices.
    This was a clear breach of privacy because only the Finance Minister and few top officials of the department were privy to the content of the upcoming policy for a ‘fair tax’, which ultimately also decided to punish small businesses, who are responsible for creating 70 per cent of employment opportunities in this country. It also brought ‘fairness’ to low wage earners, who were getting any company discounts and more recently to diabetic patients. The government that can hand over billions to Bombardier corporation has targeted small businesses and low wage earners. Apart from rich corporations, the Ottawa regime thinks the rules do not apply to their own fortunes.
    The question arises: Do any ethics apply to our elected officials? All Members of Parliament are expected to disclose any companies they own, or have shares, to the Conflict Commissioner. Our Finance Minister did not think it applies to rich individuals in the cabinet like himself. It was only after media reports surfaced that he owned a villa in southern France that he had the courtesy of revealing the ownership to the Conflict Commissioner. The villa is owned jointly with his wife, Nancy McCain, the daughter of McCain Foods billionaires. Tax experts believe that such foreign investments have numerous tax advantages for the rich, including avoiding Canadian inheritance tax. As the issue surfaced about this villa, the Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson moved to fine $200 to Bill Morneau for this failure to disclose.
    Canadian people watching the saga of Senator Duffy trial, his acquittal, and Bill Morneau, must have been wondering what is going on in Ottawa? What appeared like gross violation of ‘common sense’ norms and manipulation of rules to defraud Canadian tax-payers and secrecy rules is not against the Ethics guidelines of Parliamentarians. Senator Duffy was released because the court did not find he violated any guidelines. Needless to say, in the absence of any worthy ethical guidelines defrauding Canadian taxpayers, it is very difficult to commit violations. Morneau was fined $200 because the Act allows a maximum fine of $500. 
    The Opposition’s call for Monreau’s resignation is falling on the deaf ears of the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He himself is caught in violation of four sections of the Conflict of Interest Act for his ‘family’ vacation to Billionaire Aga Khan’s private Island in Bahamas. Aga Khan’s Global Centre for Pluralism had received a $15 million ‘charity’ from the federal government. Prime Minister Trudeau seems to believe, according to the Opposition leader Andrew Scheer, that “the rules do not apply for people like him.” These ‘normal’ issues have the potential to become ‘hot’ issues in the next federal election in October 2019. Meantime, the situation echoes a warning from the Roman satirist Juvenal: ‘But who will guard the Guardians themselves?’ 
    An ex-citizenship judge of BC and Yukon region, Dr. Shinder Purewal teaches Political Science at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
    (The views expressed by the writer are not necessarily the views of the publishers or the DARPAN team.)

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