Having spent the last decade navigating the complex — and frequently chaotic — partisan dynamics of the parliamentary precinct, I find it hard to fathom that former ethics watchdog Mary Dawson would have been surprised by the political firestorm she set off when she ruled that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2016 holiday getaway to the Aga Khan’s private Bahamian island broke four separate sections of the federal conflict-of-interest regime.
Yet as she made perhaps her final appearance before the House ethics committee to discuss her findings — at a mid-recess meeting called at the request of Conservative ethics critic Peter Kent — Dawson seemed genuinely perplexed by the level of outrage emanating from the opposition side of the table.
And as willing as she apparently was to spend her third day of official retirement fielding increasingly pointed questions as to how and why she reached her conclusions, she dodged virtually every effort to entice her to into going beyond what she had laid out in her final report.
She was happy to expand on the process that led her to determine that Trudeau had breached four specific rules in the Conflict of Interest Act, but was unshakeable in maintaining her overall view that, while it may not be perfect, the Act, as it stands, is actually pretty effective — particularly, she mused at one point, when compared to what’s in place in other jurisdictions around the world.
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While she acknowledged having recommended a litany of potential improvements to the Act in the various reviews that took place during her tenure, she repeatedly declined to side with those now demanding that it be expanded to include additional provisions to allow for such ethical misdeeds to be punished, whether through administrative penalties — which the commissioner already has the power to impose, albeit only with regard to filing accurate, timely information, and only to a maximum of $500 — or by some other form of sanction.
The issuing of a public report, Dawson reminded MPs more than once during the two-hour session, was meant to serve as punishment itself, and in her opinion, that’s exactly how it has worked out — including in the case currently before the committee, as evidenced by the fact that this meeting was taking place.
She also made it clear that, as far as she was concerned, Trudeau and his office had co-operated fully with her investigation, which included two interviews of the prime minister and written documentation provided by Trudeau’s lawyers.
(Conservative MP Jacques Gourde seemed particularly suspicious of this aspect of the PMO response, and did his best to draw out further information during a follow-up round of questions that only served to baffle Dawson even more. “I’m sorry,” she confessed. “I’m missing the point.”)
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Finally, she dismissed any suggestion that the Trudeau report was exceptional, as far as the ruling itself, aside from the fact that it was the first such finding against a sitting prime minister.
It was, Dawson noted, not the first time she’d been obliged to wade into the rules on gifts, which, she observed, seem to provoke considerable confusion in general, and could possibly benefit from being narrowed down further during the next legislative review.
But perhaps most disappointingly, at least from the perspective of the opposition — which had clearly been hoping to keep the story in the news (and the prime minister on the defensive) until the Commons re-opens for business later this month — was Dawson’s contention that, when it comes down to it, not only is the current conflict-of-interest regime pretty good, but so are the vast majority of the public-office holders it governs, at least when it comes to their wanting to follow the rules.
They don’t always succeed, of course, as evidenced not only by the Trudeau report, but also by Dawson’s findings against Finance Minister Bill Morneau (who failed to report his indirect ownership of a French villa), as well as any number of reports Dawson has produced over the past 10 years, virtually all of which have concluded that any violations were the result of ignorance of the rules, not of deliberate attempts to breach the public trust.
That may not make for a juicy pull-quote for the next Conservative Party email blast, but it should provide some comfort to Canadians who find themselves fretting over the ethical moorings of their elected representatives.
Yes, the prime minister demonstrated a remarkable lack of judgment in failing to see the potential conflict of interest that his sojourn at the Aga Khan’s tropical getaway could create. But he was quick to publicly acknowledge Dawson’s findings and apologize for his actions. He pledged to take steps to double-check any future vacation plans — asking permission, as it were, rather than begging forgiveness, which, as Dawson herself noted, is probably all that needs to done to prevent such missteps in future.
That’s probably the best possible outcome for a controversy that has consumed an astonishing quantity of political oxygen over the past 11 months.
Rather than try desperately to keep the outrage at a rolling boil, Trudeau’s adversaries may want to take the win — and then follow Dawson’s lead and declare the case closed. If they don’t, they run the very real risk that their hyperbole over rule-breaking prime ministers could further erode public confidence in politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Kady O’Malley writes for iPolitics.ca, and also appears regularly on television and radio.
Correction: This article originally stated that the commissioner has the power to impose fines of up to $200. In fact, she can impose fines of up to $500. TVO regrets the error.