Spend time on ethics prep to save time handling pitfalls
by Mario Dion, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner
Op-ed published in The Hill Times
January 20, 2022
Prevention is the major focus of the regimes that I administer as the federal Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, but they also contain enforcement provisions for instances of non-compliance. Under the Conflict of Interest Act, I can issue administrative monetary penalties for failure to meet certain reporting deadlines and orders that can, for example, prohibit former public office holders from dealing with current public officials. I can also conduct investigations resulting in the release of a public report.
The Act provides a variety of mechanisms to help ensure the spirit and intent of the law are met. One question about my powers that I am at times asked is should I have the ability to recommend stiffer penalties for public office holders who violate the Act. However, it is not up to the Commissioner to suggest changes outside of a formal review by a parliamentary committee. I administer the Act as it is written and for the most part, I believe it is working well.
Whether or not the Act is amended, it will still be up to all regulatees—ministers, deputy ministers, parliamentary secretaries and ministerial staff, and individuals appointed to public sector boards and agencies—to take the time to learn about its conflict of interest rules. My role is to provide what is needed to achieve and maintain compliance. This includes supporting, advising and directing them as well as monitoring their actions. However, it is manifestly unfeasible to watch regulatees’ every move to proactively provide preventative guidance. It is therefore imperative that regulatees develop a reflex to act ethically and educate themselves to ensure compliance.
As I look back on how I fulfilled my mandate in administering both the Act and the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons last year, I am pleased with how the Office has evolved its approaches and adopted more preventative strategies towards education. For 2022, my attention remains focused on educating to prevent conflicts of interest, especially in light of recent ethical issues that have impacted public confidence.
To maintain the trust that Canadians have placed in them, regulatees must invest the time necessary to understand and respect the rules around conflicts of interest to continue upholding that confidence. They are accountable for their compliance with the legislation and therefore must take charge of their education. If you’re a regulatee, here’s how you can build your own understanding of your obligations, now and in the future.
First, you must familiarize yourself with the rules. It’s as simple as reading the text of the Act or its summary, easily accessible on the Office’s website. While this is an initial investment of time, it will go a long way in helping you meet your obligations throughout your mandate. Remember that compliance rules go beyond the duration of your mandate under the Act: you continue to have obligations even after you leave office. Post-employment rules include prohibitions against taking improper advantage of your previous public office, switching sides and using insider information.
Second, continue building your education by taking advantage of our educational tools. These include virtual and in-person educational sessions hosted by myself or another representative of the Office, as well as helpful information on the website such as information notices on various themes covered by the Act. We also use Twitter (@EthicsCanada) to keep you in the loop of information that can help you understand and comply with the Act. Our aim is to make it easy for you to stay on top of your obligations, but it is up to you to become a lifelong learner and make the most of these tools. Feedback is always welcome, and I would encourage you to tell us how we can best support your needs.
Third, should you have questions at any point in your learning journey, whether general or specific to your case, advisors in the Office are available to help you. Just as you would seek medical advice to avoid health complications or legal advice to avoid falling afoul of the law, you must take it upon yourself to seek advice from the Office to avoid conflicts of interest.
Complying with the Conflict of Interest Act is not about avoiding penalties, but about doing the right thing. I firmly believe that the vast majority of regulatees are honest people who want to follow the rules. My advice to regulatees is simple: spend time to save time. It is far easier for you to meet your obligations than it is to be investigated for possible non-compliance.