Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Guidelines existed for gifts to MLAs

Conflict gap addressed in 2000

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THE NDP could have avoided the Jets ticket affair if they had abided by a 2000 report recommending several ways to plug gaping holes in the province's conflict-of-interest legislation.

That's the view from two legal experts who also warn the Selinger government now has the weakest conflict and disclosure rules in the country when it comes to gifts such as free NHL tickets.

Manitoba's Law Reform Commission submitted a report in December 2000 encouraging the government to tighten its conflict rules, including provincial politicians accepting gifts.

The commission said the amended act should prohibit the acceptance of gifts or other benefits connected directly or indirectly with the performance of an MLA's duties of office. The commission recommended the change to prevent even the appearance of a conflict of interest. The decision to write the report was made in 1998, a year before the NDP came to power.

Retired Court of Queen's Bench judge Gerald Jewers, an author of the commission's report, said if the government had brought in what the commission recommended on gifts, the Jets ticket affair of the past two weeks might have been avoided.

"Maybe they'll have a look at it with all this publicity," Jewers said Wednesday.

Ottawa lawyer Guy Giorno, an expert in Canadian lobbying law and ex-chief of staff for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said since 2000 all the other provinces have enacted restrictions on the acceptance of gifts.

"One model says that you can't accept a gift if it might be seen or it might reasonably be seen to influence you in the course of your duties," Giorno said. "Other jurisdictions simply say you can't accept any gifts given in connection to your office."

Manitoba rules say nothing about the acceptance of gifts as long as those with a value of $250 are publicly disclosed.

Giorno, who speaks June 19 at the Carol Shields Auditorium at the Millennium Library, said Manitoba's public servants have tougher rules on gifts than their political masters.

"What's sauce for the goose is obviously not necessarily sauce for the gander," he said, adding the NDP issuance of a new policy banning acceptance of free tickets to pro sports events doesn't go far enough.

"That's a far cry away from amending the act, which is what you need to do to fix it," he said.

Matt Williamson, spokesman for Premier Greg Selinger, said in an email as a result of the commission's report the NDP created the position of conflict-of-interest commissioner to provide guidance.

"The premier also last week referred this issue to the legislative assembly management committee and the ethics commissioner to ensure the new guidelines apply to all MLAs," Williamson said. "If they determine that changes to the act will add greater clarity, then certainly that's something we'll look at doing."

Progressive Conservative MLA Ron Schuler said it wouldn't matter what the rules are on accepting gifts -- they are worthless unless followed.

"I'm not too sure what can protect the NDP from themselves," he said. "If you're not going to comply with the rules, what difference does it make what the rules are?"

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Call for reforms

The rules on disclosure as they are now:

The Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Conflict of Interest Act, in effect since Oct. 9, 2008, says:

No member or minister is required to disclose any gift worth less than $250 unless the total value of all the gifts from the donor to the member or minister and the dependants of the member or minister during the previous year exceeded $250.

 

What the Law Reform Commission said in December 2000 it should be:

The act should prohibit the acceptance, by members or their family members, of fees, gifts, or other benefits connected directly or indirectly with the performance of members' duties of office. Acceptance of compensation authorized by law, or gifts received as an incident of the protocol, customs, or social obligations that normally accompany the responsibilities of office should not be prohibited. Gifts falling into this category, however, should be required to be disclosed if they exceed $250 in value individually or cumulatively in a 12-month period from a single source.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2012 A4

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