Hey, remember that Code of Conduct for MPs? - Liveblogging the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commish at Procedure and House Affairs

What’s this? A meeting to deal with ‘matters related to the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons”? Why, that sounds like a job for … ITQ. After all, it is one of her favourite committees, after all. Check back at 11am for full coverage as Mary Dawson delivers a progress report on compliance with the code. No fireworks are expected — at least, not by ITQ, that is — but really, couldn’t we all use a bit of a refresher course on the ethical obligations of our elected officials? Check back at 11am for full coverage.

10:57:25 AM
Man, I’d forgotten how small this committee room is — that, or I’ve been spoiled by the comparative glamour of the Railway Room. Also, it’s surprisingly full — I mean, not for an A-list committee, but for Procedure and House Affairs, more than two reporters showing up is cause for eyebrow raising and hasty consultations over what they could possibly be expecting.

11:01:06 AM
Oh, there’s the whole gang back again. It seems like *ages* since ITQ has made it to a PROC meeting — probably because they’ve got a habit of going in camera for weeks at a time — but Chairman Joe is as jovial and good natured as ever as he gavels the meeting into action.

11:03:06 AM
Well, this is annoying — my earpiece isn’t working, which is making the very softspoken Commissioner Dawson exceedingly hard to hear. Hmph. Luckily, her staff has passed out copies of her speech, which is why ITQ can inform you that she’s giving a fairly positive report on compliance, although she thinks the committee should consider freeing her up to explain when she decides *not* to launch an investigation.

11:06:27 AM
Hey, there’s a watcher from Natural Resources here! What, oh what, about today’s meeting could possibly have attracted the interest of *that* ministry — oh, right.

Meanwhile, Dawson is telling MPs that she thinks it might be “instructive” – and serve transparency – to be more open, which means she’s nearly done with her prepared statement.

11:08:48 AM
On to question, starting with Marlene Jennings, who notes that Dawson has revealed that 284 MPs are in compliance with the code — there are, she points out, 304 members currently, and four vacancies, yet nearly a year later, there are sixteen MPs who aren’t in compliance.

“When we get reports from members, some are more complex than others,” Dawson explains — it doesn’t mean those MPs are code of conduct scofflaws, but in most cases, the office is waiting for approval of the final statement. Jennings thinks the committee should look at “tightening up the rules”. She finds it odd that there are as many as twenty cases that are “so complex” that a year isn’t long enough to sort it out, and Dawson agrees, in a mildmannered way. There’s also a 120 day deadline, which means that the final disclosures for these MPs are, in fact, well overdue.

Jennings also seems cautiously keen on the suggestion that more detail be provided on investigations that don’t go forward, and Dawson, inspired, points out that there could be a little bit of tweaking to the wording of the Act itself — including giving her more power to launch self-initiated inquiries.

11:16:31 AM
Over to the Conservative side of the table– yes, already; this is one of those committees that went for the increased allotment of questions for the government — and Harold Albrecht, who wonders if there’s a need for regular review of the code, given the many changes that have been made even over the last two years. It’s not that the provisions are faulty, Dawson assures him — it’s an issue of interpretation.

So there’s no way to lump them together, Albrecht muses. No, not really — and, as Dawson points out, with the issue of gifts, there was “no way of knowing how draconian the rules were” until she was expected to interpret them. Sounds rather like certain federal accountability acts that we were told and told again were letter perfect as written and don’t you dare amend a comma, senators.

11:21:57 AM
Dawson explains how the 120 deadline isn’t quite drop-dead — in some cases, it can take an MP a bit of time to ‘extricate’ himself from prohibited activity — which seems to reassure Albrecht, at least.

11:22:52 AM
Over to the Bloc Quebecois, and Claude Debellefeuille, who wonders whether Dawson believes that caucus is the best forum for her to deliver her standard spiel on the rules and regs, and Dawson seems to think that it is, although she is clearly somewhat preoccupied by the issue of gifts; her office hasn’t received any further declarations thereof, she notes, so she’s “interested” to see whether that picks up after her next ethics teach-in.

Debellefeuille suggests that she hold one-on-one meetings as well, since MPs might not always be comfortable coming forward in front of a crowd, and Dawson assures her that they’re always willing to talk to MPs in a less hectic setting.

11:27:15 AM
A question about Rogers, and the offer that the company — which, not that many of you don’t realize this, is, of course, the parent company of Maclean’s — has made to provide free filming for MPs, who would have the opportunity to use the footage for local broadcasts; should Rogers come up with a value for that service, DeBellefeuille wonders. Is it a potential conflict of interest? Apparently, the Ethics Commissioner’s office looked into that when the offer was made — they got a few calls from members, not surprisingly — and determined that it was fine as long as the value didn’t exceed $500. If similar offer is made to MPs in footage, Dawson notes, they’ll look at the same issue: provided it stays under the cap, it won’t be a problem.

11:30:35 AM
Yvon Godin wants to go back to those 16 non-compliant MPs — are they new to Ottawa, he wonders — that could explain why. Dawson’s colleague, whose name I missed the first time around, and whose nameplate is unreadable from this angle — points out that the full list is available on the website, but can confirm that five are freshly elected.

One potentially troublesome quirk: the 120 day deadline isn’t part of the code, but the act.
11:33:33 AM
Godin switches to housekeeping business — Dawson’s house, that is — and questions her about staff turnover (apparently it’s a bit better than it was last year), and administration of both the act and the code. At any given moment, Dawson’s colleague says, a quarter of the staff will be working on the Code; the rest will be dealing with the Act.

Remind ITQ again, will someone — why did we decide to have both an act and a code? Did it make sense at the time?
11:36:19 AM
Marcel Proulx thinks that the office should have sent out a notice about its decision on the Rogers video offer– did someone miss out on his free Remembrance Day video? — and suggests that, in cases where all members receive the same solicitation, they should send out a House-wide memo. Dawson – and her colleague – seem to agree with the idea in principle, although she reminds him that they don’t always know that an offer has been made to all and sundry.

11:39:03 AM
Proulx wonders how the office would respond if he started to “run a radio or television show” – or act in advertisments for cars or “grooming products” — how would that work? I have to think the party would have something to say about that before it ever went to the Ethics Commissioner, but Dawson notes that there *is* a right to earn money outside one’s duties as a member, provided it wouldn’t affect their ability to do their job.

What about voting, Proulx wonders — is that part of their job responsibility? Oh, I think we all know what — or who — he’s talking about *now*. Anyway, Dawson, once again, seems to agree in principle that an outside job that prevents one from voting could, indeed, be seen as a breach, but says that she’s never investigated it, since she’s never been asked to do so. Right, right — lack of power to self-initiate. That can’t *possibly* have seemed like a good idea even at the time.

11:44:06 AM
Tom Lukiwski wants to go back to the point about not being able to comment when a preliminary review turns out to be “baseless”, which sort of makes sense to him, as it would discourage members from making “frivolous complaints for political reasons” — it would be ‘very helpful’ to the aggrieved party, he thinks. Does she also think that it’s her job to come before the committee on a regular basis to make suggestions — or is it their job to do the same for her? Dawson tells him that she’d be pleased to put together a submission on that issue, but reminds him that, as was the case with the gift issue, these things sometimes just come up.

“If I’m in the middle of an investigation, I can desist if I find it was for frivolous or vexatious reasons,” she points out — but when the allegations just don’t pan out, it would be helpful to be able to say so. (Or, presumably, to be able to say that said allegations fall outside her jurisdiction, thus prohibiting her from making *any* finding of non-compliance.)

11:50:11 AM
Wow, no more questions from the Bloc Quebecois or the NDP? That almost never happens.

Rodger Cuzner, however, still has a few more issues to clarify — does that mean she can’t confirm if an investigation has been dropped? No — or wait, does she mean ‘yes’, she wonders for a moment. “No, that’s the act,” she muses to herself. Okay, seriously, if the commissioner has trouble keeping them straight, it’s safe to say we may have a problem here.

Anyway, all she can confirm is that an investigation is, or is not, underway.

11:52:49 AM
Paul Calandra — a rookie Conservative — would like to remind all the veteran MPs out there that it’s a very difficult transition, y’all — when he was elected, he had a ten day old newborn, he had no place to live in Ottawa, he had to hire staff, etc., etc., and I’m sure the candidate he beat out is playing the world’s tiniest and most passive aggressive violin if he or she happens to be watching this on ParlVu. Anyway, the upshot is that 120 days isn’t very long at all, and shouldn’t they be given a heads up — by Elections Canada, perhaps — of what to expect if elected?

Dawson reminds him that the rules are available on her website — really, shouldn’t anyone who is even *thinking* of running for office make sure that he can — or would want to — comply with the rules?

11:58:07 AM
Claude DeBellefeuille thought of another question — drat; ITQ is starting to get peckish, and doesn’t dare hit the snack table at the back of the room: she’s a bit concerned over the staff turnover, too, and notes that, according to the report, the office is about to lose 85 percent of its newly recruited staffers, but it turns out it’s not quite that bad; there’s a bit of back and forth about the numbers, and DeBellefeuille is somewhat mollified by the end.

12:00:41 PM
Marlene Jennings, it transpires, was trying to find the list of MPs in compliance — and not — on the website, but wasn’t able to do so: Dawson’s colleague explains how to navigate the website, and it turns out that there actually is a limit to what ITQ is willing to liveblog, and testimony that involves step by step directions on how to use a website is, as it turns out, just over the line.

12:03:54 PM Guy Lauzon can’t quite believe that neither Dawson nor her colleagues can tell him how many hits the website gets. ITQ cannot quite believe how this has turned into a committee meeting about a website. Both boggle until the chair intervenes to note that he doesn’t have any other names on his speaking list — hurray — and invites Dawson to put together a specific list of recommendations. She offers to go him one better, and suggests that she can also provide more general suggestions on the inquiry process; the committee has already dealt with “a lot of the little irritants,” she notes, up to and including approval of the new forms. She’s also ready to prepare guidelines on the gifts, but wouldn’t mind waiting for six months or so to see how things are working out under the slightly de-draconified rules.

12:12:45 PM

And that’s all for today! Tune in Thursday for what sounds like a far more potentially headline-provoking appearance by the Chief Electoral Officer, who will be talking H1N1 preparation. Doesn’t he know we’re not having a fall election after all?

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