Both the Prime Minister and Nigel Wright have deferred to the ethics commissioner as the authority who is looking into the matter of Mr. Wright’s arrangement with Mike Duffy. Unfortunately, it is unclear how well the commissioner’s investigation will do in resolving this matter.
Yesterday, I sat down with Robert Walsh, the former parliamentary law clerk who served in that role from 1999 to 2012, when he retired. As part of that interview, I asked him about the ethics commission’s role in this case.
Q: The ethics commissioner and her place in this or her ability to get at the truth…
A: You say, get at this. Let’s be clear what we’re talking about. We’re talking about a payment by the chief of staff of the prime minister of $90,000 to a senator, Mike Duffy. And the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, commonly referred to as ethics commissioner, although her function has very little to do with ethics, her function under the Conflict of Interest Act is to examine conflicts of interest with public office holders, of which Nigel Wright is one. Her jurisdiction doesn’t touch on senators. And the essential thing she’s looking for in any investigation is a conflict between the public duty of the public office holder, Mr. Wright, and his private interests. And whether, as a public office holder, Mr. Wright was using his position to advance a private interest of his. In the absence of some conflict of that kind I don’t think she has anything to investigate and my question for her, and I would think her question to herself, is what is the private interest that Mr. Wright was advancing by this payment?
Myself, I don’t see one, but maybe there’s something there we don’t know yet. I doubt it. I’m inclined to think that he simply made a generous gesture, however ill-conceived and misguided, and that’s what’s got him into trouble here. But I don’t see her finding a conflict of interest of a kind that gives her jurisdiction.
Having said that, there’s also another concern that she may be ousted by virtue of the fact that the RCMP, it would appear, is investigating this matter and under the Conflict of Interest Act, she is required to suspend any examination she’s doing while such investigation is underway and until it’s completed. If there were any charges laid, any further proceedings, she’d have to wait until all that is finished and then she could re-enter and do an examination, which would probably, in that scenario, be many years from now.
So I personally don’t think that the ethics commissioner is going to provide any solution to this matter and I would hope that she might clarify her position sooner rather than later. She obviously has been in this job for a couple years now and she’s very expert on her statute and she should be able to determine fairly quickly as to whether there’s any basis here for her to make an investigation. And if there isn’t, she should announce that so that her role is well understood and out of the picture.