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MPs Make Incredible Claims That Their New Ethics Code Loopholes Were Added Unknowingly, and Pose No Problems

Set out below is a letter to the editor by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher which was published in slightly different, edited form in the June 22, 2009 issue of the Hill Times

Conservative MP Scott Reid, chair of the sub-committee on gifts and the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons (MPs Code), is quoted as saying that it "didn't apparently occur to Mr. Conacher when he was a witness" that the MPs Code should be changed or interpreted by the Ethics Commissioner to clearly prohibit gifts of money, property or services from people or organizations who are lobbying or dealing with MPs (MPs open 'serious loophole' - June 15, 2009 Hill Times).

In fact, as the transcript of my testimony on April 2, 2009 before the sub-committee shows clearly, as does the written brief I submitted to the sub-committee, I not only raised the issue, I specifically recommended that this loophole be closed.

Instead of closing the loophole, the sub-committee, the full Procedure and House Affairs Committee, and the House of Commons have unanimously added a loophole to the MPs Code that allows lobbyists to provide unlimited volunteer services of any kind in secret to any MP without any conflict of interest being created.

Mr. Reid is also quoted as saying that the issue "did not occur to anybody who was on the committee" during their eight secret meetings.  This is unbelievable, not only because I testified on this point specifically, but also because it shows how little MPs think about the conflicts of interest their relationships with lobbyists create.

Liberal sub-committee member Marlene Jennings is quoted as saying that I am "stretching" when raising the scenario of a lobbyist doing favours for politicians they are lobbying.

I think she is stretching by denying that it is usual practice in Ottawa for lobbyists to provide gifts and to "wine and dine" politicians and help out with their and their parties' election campaigns.

In fact, the other long-standing "sponsored travel" loophole in the MPs Code that allows lobbyists to give MPs the gift of unlimited travel without creating a conflict of interest is exploited by many MPs each year as they head out on free junkets around the world.

Now that the House of Commons is well aware of these loopholes, and given that according to Ms. Jennings no MP would face any difficulties if lobbyists were clearly prohibited from doing favours for them, the House has clear reasons to close the loopholes right away by adding to the MPs Code that volunteer services do not count as a gift or benefit unless the volunteer is a person lobbying or dealing with the MP, and by prohibiting sponsored travel.

The article also attributes to Ms. Jennings the claim that a party or riding association giving benefits to an MP to vote in a certain way is a violation of the Criminal Code, and that therefore it was ok for the committee to create another loophole in the MPs Code to allow such benefits.

In fact, it is not known for sure if that action is a crime, as there have been no court cases on the issue (despite the many examples in the past 5 years of parties offering or providing benefits to MPs for switching parties or their votes).

But if it is a crime, why would MPs change their ethics rules to make it (supposedly) ethical for any party (not just their own) or riding association to give any benefit in secret to any MP?  Doesn't this loophole encourage parties to offer benefits to MPs in attempts to buy their loyalty to the party line, diminishing the key independence of MPs in the same way as party leaders appointing candidates and protecting incumbents, or party headquarters financing MPs' election campaigns?

MPs must also close this loophole in their code immediately by adding that only reimbursements for the costs of participating in their own party's and riding association's events and activities are exempt from ethics rules, but all other gifts and benefits that any party or riding association provides to MPs must be disclosed, and are prohibited if intended to influence the MP's decisions.

MPs holding secret meetings to create loopholes in their ethics rules (including meeting behind closed doors with their supposed watchdog, federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson) was bad enough, and making misleading claims about the loopholes is just as bad, and if MPs leave these three loopholes open they should not be at all surprised when future surveys show that voter distrust of federal politicians has increased to even higher levels.

Canadians deserve better.

Duff Conacher, Coordinator
Democracy Watch

For more details, go to Democracy Watch's Ethics Complaints and Court Cases page

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