Opinion-Policy Nexus

“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” – Jesus to his disciples, Matthew 19:24

Chances are Bill Morneau will ride out the storm and live to fight another day as minister of finance, but he has not made it easy for himself or the prime minister.

He invited allegations of conflict of interest when he failed to place his substantial financial assets into a blind trust initially, choosing instead to transfer them to a numbered company that he happened to control. A minor minister might have gotten away with it, but not the minister of finance – as Morneau should have anticipated and as Mary Dawson, the curiously passive Commons ethics commissioner, should have warned him.

Before that controversy could cool down, a new one ignited as opposition MPs produced records of trades in the stock of the minister’s family company, Morneau Shepell. Opposition leader Andrew Scheer warily called on Morneau to resign. I say “warily” because Scheer stopped just short of accusing Morneau of insider trading.

That’s a serious allegation. Section 382.1 (1) of the Criminal Code states: “A person is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years who, directly or indirectly, buys or sells a security, knowingly using inside information ...”

Scheer stopped short because he knew if he uttered the words “insider trading” outside the Commons he would be sued for libel. I suspect he also stopped short because he knew the allegation would have been untrue – because, deep down, Scheer, like other MPs, accepts that Morneau is an honest person.

Honest, but naively unprepared for hardball on Parliament Hill.  Honest – and rich.

Morneau would not be in the pickle he is in if he were poor. Or if he, like so many parliamentarians, possessed few assets beyond a house, a car, perhaps a cottage, an RRSP and a few dollars in a bank account. He wouldn’t have to worry about perceptions of conflict of interest or insider trading.

Without getting into a discussion of camels, eyes of needles or whether the federal cabinet is the political equivalent of the kingdom of God (some ambitious backbenchers surely think it is), it would have been easier for Morneau if he had arrived on Parliament Hill after the 2015 election in sackcloth and ashes, having given his worldly goods away to beggars along the route from Toronto to Ottawa.

There are reasons why successful entrepreneurs and investors and captains of commerce steer clear of electoral politics. Some simply want to concentrate on accumulating greater fortunes. Some believe they can do more good by remaining outside politics and using their wealth to advance the sorts of causes they would promote if they were in government. Yet there are rich people like Morneau who believe they can make a difference if they roll up their sleeves, run for office, immerse themselves the often grimy world of partisan politics, and offer their knowledge and experience in government.

Smoothing the path of the wealthy is not, and should not be, a political priority.  But a case can be made that conflict of interest rules that are designed to protect the public interest should not also act as barrier to people who have been successful in private life and are eager to contribute in public life.

The blind trust arrangements do not work and never have. The politician knows what assets he placed in his trust, he knows the independent trustee (and may have chosen that person), and, if the politician is so inclined, he can influence the trustee’s investment decisions though casual conversation, without issuing actual instructions, which would be improper.

Parliamentary ethics rules – including the role and powers of the ethics commissioner – need a thorough revision. It’s a job for an all-party committee of Parliament, if the government would appoint one.

Posted
Monday, December 4, 2017 - 10:05