ETHICS: Tobacco probe blowing smoke, says expert

Premier Alison Redford

Multiple loopholes in Alberta ethics law guarantee Premier Alison Redford can’t be punished by the province’s ethics commissioner for awarding a contract to her ex-husband while she was still justice minister, says a legal expert.

The multi-million-dollar contract Redford awarded to her ex-husband’s legal firm Jensen Shawa Solomon Duguid Hawkes gave it the responsibility of suing tobacco companies on the province’s behalf for past damages to the public. Some critics have noted the deal was officially signed after she left the post of Justice Minister, making the ethics issue moot.

It wouldn’t matter.

Narrowly defined ethics rules in Alberta mean that government and opposition politicians alike already know Redford’s deal does not breach conflict of interest regulations, said Duff Conacher, founder of the government reform lobby Democracy Watch … even though it should.

“In most provinces there is a clause that says you can’t make a decision in government if it would further the private interests of a friend,” Conacher said. “But the Alberta legislation is limited to ‘a person who is directly associated with the member’.”

In Alberta law, that’s defined as a current spouse or domestic partner, children, and business or corporate partners. Former spouses are exempt from the regulation. “In the rest of the country, pretty much across the board, this would be illegal. But not in Alberta,” said Conacher.

Another indicating the individual cannot exercise “inappropriate bias” relies on the same nebulous definitions. Given that a business relationship with an ex-spouse is not considered inappropriate, Redford won’t be found to have shown bias.

Duff Conacher

Duff Conacher

Alberta’s rules will be reviewed by the all-party Select Special Conflicts of Interest Act Review Committee this spring, but Conacher said so far the hearings are being held behind closed doors, without public participation. “This isn’t just a matter of the government. You would think if the opposition wanted change, it would demand that the public be allowed to attend and present at those hearings, but so far that hasn’t happened.”

The Wildrose party recently called for an independent investigator to look into the contract. But Conacher said opposition politicians’ efforts so far are a bit of a sham: they already know the loophole exists and that the investigation will come back without punishment for the premier, and instead of demanding the problem be fixed by patching up the loopholes, instead uses them for public indignation.

“They’re asking for written submissions and then they’re holding closed-door hearings,” he said. “And they’re all in a conflict of interest, because they’re deciding their own ethics restrictions. It’s outrageous.”

The NDP’s Rachel Notley said her party will ask for public input and open meetings. “It’s my understanding that that’s the case, and if it’s not we’ll push for that to happen.”

Notley said everyone is well aware the legislation is loophole riddled, which is why the review is important. “The culture (at the legislature) is pretty ingrained and we’ve pushed for more openness but it’s hard. A lot of the people involved in the system have been there for so long they don’t even recognize that what they’re doing is wrong. It’s just the way it’s done.”

Government conflict rules should be set by an independent body, Conacher said. If such a body existed, it would surely also recommend removing a loophole that allows politicians to skirt financial interest when the matter involves a “general” decision – in other words, a politician is allowed to benefit financially from his or her own decision, as long as it’s a regulation that generally affects everyone, rather than a specific contract or deal between a limited number of parties.

“Basically, a politician can make a decision that applies generally, and even if he makes a million dollars off his shares in a company affected by it, it’s not considered unethical. It’s the granddaddy of all loopholes,” Conacher said. “When they close these loopholes, perhaps the public will start seeing politicians as deserving some trust again.”