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Morneau urged to enact stronger ethical screen to prevent conflicts of interest

26 Oct 17
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Finance Minister Bill Morneau is facing calls for stricter moral oversight of government activities affecting his financial interests as he attempts to sit down on Thursday with the national ethics czar and talk about his belated decision to place considerable private holdings in a blind trust.

Deputy Conservative leader Lisa Raitt told The Globe and Mail which Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson should not allow a situation to continue where the Finance Minister’s chief of staff is the only track of the ethical screen to prevent conflicts of interest arising from his link to giant human-resource and pension-planning company Morneau Shepell.

Before he was elected in 2015, Mr. Morneau was executive chairman of the firm founded by his father and still possesses one million shares in the company that are worth just more than $20-million.

“His chief of staff is responsible for the ethical display, but that appears to be sort of like the fox guarding the hen house because [that individual is] dependent upon the minister for the job,” Ms. Raitt said.

The Finance Minister should demonstrate to Canadians that he is above reproach and should include the non-partisan deputy minister of finance as the ethical overseer of conflict of interest within his section together with the chief of staff, Ms. Raitt said.

When she became transportation minister in the former Harper government, Ms. Raitt said both her chief of staff and the department’s deputy minister, a civil servant, acted as moral screens to make sure that she didn’t have any knowledge of actions between the Hamilton Port Authority, where her husband was president.

“It’s about the integrity of this procedure for department officials. They don’t need to have anything that will be called into question concerning policy making in order that they will always err on the side of caution,” she said.

“Of course, maybe that’s the issue, that Mr. Morneau was not interested in having discussions about whether his stocks of Morneau-Sheppell were likely to become a problem when talking pension-plan changes{}”

Mr. Morneau told reporters on Wednesday that he did not enter public life to benefit himself financially and he believed that his chief of staff, Richard Maksymetz, did all that was needed to prevent any conflicts of interest.

“My opinion is that the conflict-of-interest display that’s been set up for the previous two years as recommended by the ethics commissioner has worked,” Mr. Morneau said.

The minister said the integrity display only involves Morneau Shepell since his various private corporations and family trusts don’t hold shares in other publicly traded firms.

“The Ethics Commissioner’s view and the recommendations she made to me was that there should be a conflict-of-interest display [for Morneau Shepell] and there were no other conflict of interest displays required as I did not hold any other stocks and did not do any trading and would not do any other trading within the course of the time,” Mr. Morneau told reporters.

University of Toronto Professor Andrew Stark, who’s an authority on ethics and conflict of interest, ” said Mr. Morneau should just have the deputy minister of finance act as the conflict-of-interest display until the blind trust is set up and the trustee sells the one million Morneau Shepell shares owned by the Finance Minister.

“I think it’s much better to have the deputy minister do it with no chief of staff,” he said. “The blind trust is supposed to be the gold standard and it’s not necessary after a certain period to get any other remedy [like an ethics display].”

For 2 years as Finance Minister, Mr. Morneau had left the impression that his assets were in a blind trust. The wealthy Toronto businessman only chose to place those assets, such as the one million shares of Morneau Shepell, in a blind trust a week after The Globe and Mail disclosed he had prevented placing his substantial personal holdings into such a blind hope.

At the House of Commons Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed continued questions about Mr. Morneau’s behaviour and accused the opposition of being envious of the Liberal government’s performance. “The members opposite have nothing to do but attack, as they’ve been shown — within the economic growth that we’ve created over the last two years — which they had been completely wrong in the previous election, and the Canadians were right to select a better government{}”

Mr. Morneau defended his ethics on Wednesday, telling reporters that he had been “powerful” in the private sector along with his election to public office was a “huge opportunity” to assist Canadians.

“So I think it’s well understood by those who look towards people like me that we do not come into office for private gain. We come into office to make an impact on the nation. That’s certainly my motivation,” he said.

Opposition MPs have raised concerns that Mr. Morneau was the host of Bill C-27, which might enable federally regulated companies to make “target benefit” pension plans that reduce the monetary liability for companies by shifting risk to workers. The proposed law would require actuarial valuations each year for this sort of plans, which may also mean more work for companies like Morneau Shepell.

The integrity display called for Mr. Morneau’s chief of staff to inform the Finance Minister when he had to recuse himself from discussions that involved his former business. Mr. Morneau’s office said he has recused himself from cabinet discussions on two occasions but his office wouldn’t say if that involved Bill C-27.

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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