by Mario Dion, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner
Op-ed published in The Hill Times
August 3, 2022
Political staff, whether employed by Members of the House of Commons in their Hill or constituency offices or by ministers in their ministerial offices, play an essential role in Canadian democracy. They all bring knowledge, expertise and experience to their role. They all contribute a political perspective that cannot be, nor should be, expected from public servants. And they all work hard in what can be very demanding jobs.
But people employed by an MP and ministerial staff are treated very differently in terms of the application of the conflict-of-interest regimes administered by the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner.
Those employed in the Hill or constituency office of a Member are not subject to either the Conflict of Interest Act or the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons. Instead, they are subject to rules administered by the House. The Office therefore has no role when it comes to their employment and rules they must follow. However, ministerial staff who work on average 15 hours or more a week are subject to the Conflict of Interest Act, just like the ministers they support.
Ministers and the parliamentary secretaries appointed to assist them must meet the Act's most-stringent requirements. This makes sense given that the prime minister and cabinet carry out the executive authority of the government, leading the development and implementation of policies and programs in support of its agenda. Ministerial staff are subject to virtually the same rules. This makes sense, too, as they may be privy to confidential information about government policies and programs, they may help inform their minister's decision making, and they may be seen to be speaking on behalf of their minister when seeking or sharing information.
My focus here is on the rules that ministerial staff need to follow, why they're important and how the Office can help.
If you are a ministerial staff member, meaning an individual, other than a public servant, who works on behalf of a minister of the Crown, you must be vigilant in complying with the Act. The first step is to understand the rules that apply to you. It's helpful to keep in mind that the Act's focus is largely on ensuring you do not use your position to further your private—largely financial—interests or the private interests of your relatives and friends or to improperly further the private interests of anyone else.
The Act's core set of conflict-of-interest rules include a general duty to arrange your private affairs to prevent conflicts of interest and several prohibitions. For example, you and your family members may not accept gifts or other advantages that might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence you. You must consider when you need to recuse yourself and then publicly declare recusals to the Office. And you must comply with post-employment rules that include a one-year cooling-off period and some restrictions that apply for life.
Given your position as ministerial staff, like other reporting public office holders, you are also subject to ongoing reporting and public disclosure provisions, prohibitions against engaging in outside activities such as having a second job, and holding controlled assets which include publicly traded securities. Finally, like ministers and parliamentary secretaries, you are restricted from accepting travel on non-commercial chartered or private aircraft.
Remember, not only is compliance with the Act a condition of your appointment or employment, non-compliance can be addressed through administrative monetary penalties, compliance orders or investigations, all of which are made public.
The Office can help you understand and comply with the Act. Last year, we provided advice more than 3,000 times to people such as yourself. That said, in January 2022 we conducted a survey of public office holders that revealed you want to better understand the rules and we are therefore working to best align our efforts to help you do so. There is a wealth of information on our website and we offer a variety of educational sessions, including upon request. Most important, our advisors can give you confidential, personalized direction and advice to help you deal with any situations that may arise. The advice we give you is like an insurance policy—if you follow it, you will be protected against potential compliance problems. And it's easy to get. You only have to ask.