Canada Memo to ethics czar: Don’t gag MPs or media

13:41  11 february  2018
13:41  11 february  2018 Source:   Toronto Star

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The new ethics commissioner, Mario Dion, has suggested he would like to prevent MPs from informing the media when they have filed a complaint with his office and stop the media from reporting on an investigation. He should drop those ideas immediately.

Here’s some background from Norm Eisen, former Obama ethics czar and ambassador, about this issue of Trump ordering the DOJ to drop this gag order tied to the Uranium One story. Social Media Editor

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Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion must avoid attempting to trample on charter rights in his new job.© Adrian Wyld Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion must avoid attempting to trample on charter rights in his new job.

Two of the greatest bulwarks of a democracy are freedom of expression and a free press.

So it was alarming to hear that in his effort to be “tougher” than his predecessor, Canada’s new Ethics Commissioner, Mario Dion, is seeking to gag MPs and impose publication bans.

Dion made the disturbing remarks during an appearance last week before a Commons committee while discussing how he believed that ethics investigations should be conducted in private.

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There’s nothing wrong with that. But then he raised concerns that MPs can tell the media when they’ve filed a complaint and the press can report on it. That, he said, “pollutes the environment within which we have to do our examination.”

To prevent that from happening he suggested he should have the power to issue confidentiality orders to prevent MPs from informing the public about a complaint and stop the media from reporting on an investigation, no matter who their source was for the information in the first place.

Those are very dangerous ideas, indeed, and Dion should immediately drop them from his otherwise sensible proposed reforms on ethics issues.

While the former career civil servant complained that it “complicates our lives as investigators when people start to know something is under investigation,” he better get used to it.

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Transparency can be messy, but it is vital to a democracy.

Indeed, freedoms of the press and expression are both protected by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states these rights are “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

Dion’s worries about complications hardly fit that bill.

And as Conservative MP and former journalist Peter Kent pointed out, Dion’s suggestion also ignores the fact that the ethics commissioner sometimes undertakes investigations because of issues that are reported in the media in the first place.

“I think protections of free speech, journalistic practice, need to be defended and balanced,” Kent said.

And so they should be.

Despite his stumbling on free speech and media rights, Dion’s appearance before the committee indicated that he is on the right track with other ideas that are actually within his purview.

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For example, he said he would seek the right to impose substantial fines in the range of $25,000 on MPs for ethics breaches.

This is a sensible suggestion that would go a fair way to restoring public trust in government. That was undermined when Dion’s predecessor, Mary Dawson, ruled that the prime minister’s holiday vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island was illegal, but there were no consequences beyond public embarrassment.

Dion also rightly suggested doing away with a clause in the conflict-of-interest law that allows public office holders to accept gifts from friends. That was the defence the prime minister invoked for accepting the Aga Khan’s invitation.

And Dion wisely repeated his promise to advocate for a tougher conflict-of-interest law to close what the opposition now calls the “Bill Morneau loophole.”

Morneau was allowed, by law and purportedly on the advice of the then ethics commissioner, to maintain control over a large stake in his former company, even as he ran the country’s finances. It is established procedure, but not a requirement, for ministers to place their holdings in a blind trust as a way of avoiding conflicts of interest, real or perceived. That Morneau was not required to do this is concerning. The loophole should be closed.

Overall, Dion is on the right track in his new role of holding MPs accountable for any ethics violations. But he must avoid trampling on charter freedoms to do so. It should go without saying that any curtailment of free speech and freedom of the press should be out of bounds for an ethics commissioner.

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