15 July 2009

Conflict of interest curiosity

Under the 1995 Conflict of Interest Act, a public officer hold is defined as any person who “receives a salary or other remuneration, in whole or in part, from money voted by the legislature…”.

That would make a cabinet minister a public office holder under the meaning of the Act.

Pretty simple, right?

There are also sections of the House of Assembly Act  that cover conflict of interest for elected members. There are provisions that tell cabinet ministers what to do.

They all come down to the same basic points.  People can’t further their private interests using information they gain from their public office.  In addition, cabinet ministers who may find themselves in a conflict of interest have a couple of options on how to handle a specific case, should it arise.

The simplest way for a cabinet minister to avoid an appearance of conflict is to place any business interests in a blind trust as soon as he or she is appointed to cabinet.

The reason is pretty simple:  lots of things come before cabinet or a cabinet committee, especially at budget time.  If you had certain types of business interests, the “leave the room” or “get someone else to do it” procedures set out in the House of Assembly Act would basically mean some ministers would spend more time out of the cabinet room than in it.

The Premier sensibly put his interests in such a blind trust after the October 2003 election.  He may have taken a while to do it and he may have moaned and complained as he went through the process but ultimately, his approach is the most sensible way to avoid political problems. When you have important work to do, there’s no reason to be distracted by issues that can be easily avoided.

Odd then, that the Premier has apparently made no such rules for his cabinet.  In response to reporters’ questions today, the Premier said that handling potential conflicts of interest would be a matter for the new health minister to sort out with former Tory party president Paul Reynolds ( in his role as Commissioner of Legislative Standards) but, for his part, Danny Williams advised Oram to put things in a blind trust.

Advised him?

Odder then, that Oram has been in cabinet – as business minister – but hasn’t bothered to sort out this issue before now.  A blind trust is a really simple, practical solution to a very real potential political problem.

And the whole thing is odder yet again considering that in 1997, then-Premier Brian Tobin issued cabinet conflict of interest guidelines that added to the requirements already in legislation.

1) Ministers shall place in a blind trust all assets, financial interests or other sources of income within the definition of "private interest" in S. 20 (e) of the Act, except for those that are an "excluded private interest" within the definition of S. 20 (a) of the act;

(2) Trustees for these blind trusts shall be other than members of the Minister's immediate family; and

(3) Ministers shall cease to serve as directors or officers in a company or association, as referred to in S. 20 (e) (iii) of the act.

Tobin acted amid accusations of a conflict of interest involving one of his ministers.

Maybe that’s what Danny Williams referred to before the 2003 election when he laid out his own ethics and accountability commitments to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador:

We've seen blatant abuse of office and taxpayers' money, allegations concerning conflict of interest, questions of fundraising contributions, and suggestions of impropriety during leadership conventions. These are very serious issues that are eroding the people's confidence in government. [Emphasis added]

Who knows?  Maybe he had other issues in mind.

But there’s no doubt he was aware of the issues and concerned enough about them to issue a suite of promises on ethics.

He didn’t mention a specific commitment on cabinet ministers and conflicts of interest but it seems passing strange that he hasn’t given his ministers any specific instructions on conflict of interest for his own cabinet.  If nothing else, clear instructions remove needless political problems like we said already.

The Premier certainly has the power, authority and everything else needed to set the rules for his own cabinet.

So how come he has decided to let Paul Reynolds sort it out?