Arthur Schafer, who is a professor and the founding director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba says, in an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, that “Our Prime Minister denies a conflict-of-interest situation in the award of a multimillion dollar untendered contract to WE Charity. His Minister of Finance, Bill Morneau, offers a similar denial. Both concede, however, that they ought to have recused themselves from the decision-making process because, as they now acknowledge, there was the appearance of a conflict … [but all that happens is that] … Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau admit that things look bad … [but] … both claim that this is mere appearance. Notwithstanding that Mr. Trudeau’s family were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by WE, and notwithstanding that Mr. Morneau’ s daughter is employed by WE and his family were treated to expensive overseas travel, both the Prime Minister and his Minister of Finance insist that there was no real conflict of interest … [thus] … they deny what is patently obvious to most Canadians indicates that neither understands what it is to be in a conflict of interest.“
Using an all too familiar but fictional scenario, Professor Schafer illustrates how ludicrous the Trudeau-Morneau position really is. They are claiming, in effect, that because they are already rich they cannot be “bought” by the Keilburgers or the Aga Khan and they say that they are only interested in doing the right thing to help people. We can agree that both are rich, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be influenced by someone who provides paid employment for their family members or offers lavish paid vacations in exotic places where the hoi polloi cannot go. Professor Schafer explains that “Reciprocity is a deep human need we all experience (psychopaths excepted).” When someone does something nice for us, we, most of us, want to do something nice in return. It’s natural, isn’t it? It may be unconscious, one might say to oneself that (s)he will treat everyone fairly and so on but human nature suggests otherwise.
Arthur Schafer says, and I agree (and so does almost every authority I can find online) that “potential conflicts of interest arise when an official is required to exercise discretion and is obligated to do so without bias. Public officials, whether judges or cabinet ministers, are ethically required to be “disinterested” with respect to the decisions they make. That doesn’t mean that they don’t care about the issues. It means that they have no vested (or personal) interest that might bias their judgment … [I am 100% certain that Justin Trudeau and Bill Morneau wanted to get those cheques in the mail and the cash into the hands of young Canadians … they “cared” a lot because, inter alia, the Liberal Party of Canada was trying to buy votes for Team Trudeau with the now aborted Canada Student Service Grants programme, but] … Conflict of interest does not require that bias actually occur, only that there is reason to fear that bias may be present. The risk of bias, not the exercise of bias, is what makes both our imaginary scenario and the WE Charity imbroglio real conflicts of interest.“
Anecdotally, I recall when (the 1980s) a formal Conflict of Interest and Post Employment Code was introduced here in Canada that applied to senior public servants and military officers (Navy captains and above and Army/RCAF colonels and above) it specified that the appearance of a conflict, the possible perception of a conflict, was equal to a real conflict. The code told us that we owed a duty to the public, the taxpayers, to ensure that we were using our positions for the public benefit, not for our own. I drafted one of the early “exception” letters in which my boss’s boss assured the Conflict of Interest lord-high pooh-bahs that it was in the nation’s best interests that Captian (N) or Colonel <name>, a expert on <subject>, should take a good job with <big government contractor> because that would help the company to do the work that the Government of Canada wanted done in a more timely and cost effective manner, the first time. The fact that <name> would earn a good salary was coincidental. The Conflict of Interest officials agreed and his post-service employment was approved without the (then normal) two year “cooling off” period. A similar letter was sent in the 1990s when I retired. I was the director of a small, highly specialized branch in the Department of National Defence and I was being offered a job by the national standards advisory board related to my work in part because I had very relevant, up-to-date knowledge of the field. My former boss sent the memo saying that it was in the national interest that I should do that job, even though there might be a perception that I might be using my rank/skill for my personal (employment) benefit. Those letters assured the Conflict of Interest officials and any interested citizens that we, the Department and the individuals concerned understood that we needed to avoid conflicts, even perceived ones, but that sometimes a perceived conflict would be overridden by a government’s interests in having the best available person, Commodore <name> or Colonel <name>, do a certain job for a certain company without waiting for two years while, presumably, her or his “insider” knowledge and contacts decayed.
All that to say that we have known for the better part of 40 years that a perceived Conflict of Interest is wholly and completely equal to a real Conflict of Interest. Justin Trudeau and Bill Morneau and Katie Telford all know that … if they don’t then they are too stupid to hold any public office.
“Thus,” Professor Schafer writes, and I agree fully, and so should every adult Canadian voter, “even if an independent inquiry establishes the truth of Prime Minister Trudeau’s claim that “WE Charity received no preferential treatment, not from me, not from anyone else,” it will still be the case that Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau were guilty of conflict of interest.” And, he concludes, “It’s time that cabinet members and those who advise them figured this out,” and that means it’s time that some Liberal cabinet ministers, serving and retired, and for some current and former backbench Liberal MPs take a stand for Canadians and for honesty in government and send Justin Trudeau and Bill Morneau and their (too many) friends packing.
For the rest of us, for we voters, it is past time we all agreed that “it is time for a change” … a real change.