Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Manitoba conflict laws are absurd

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Is it absurd the popular mayor of Canada's largest city lost his job -- potentially triggering a $7-million byelection -- because he used his city council letterhead in order to raise $3,100 for a charity that helps at-risk boys play football?

Many in the Ontario government say it is.

Is it just as absurd Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz could lose his job next spring, also triggering an expensive byelection, because he spent $2,915 of public funds in 2010 on an event for city councillors, department heads and their families at his own restaurant?

Manitoba's Selinger government says it isn't.

Even before Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was removed from office, the government of Ontario was preparing for a drastic overhaul of that province's conflict-of-interest laws. It is widely perceived that they fail to address many forms of unethical conduct, that enforcement costs too much and takes too long, and that the inflexible penalties result in unreasonable consequences.

Far from being an effective deterrent against unethical behaviour by municipal and provincial politicians, the laws are being used by deep-pocketed partisans as proxies for recall legislation.

Though Manitoba's conflict-of-interest laws are almost identical to Ontario's, and the flaws equally serious, a spokesperson for Premier Greg Selinger told the Free Press earlier this week the Manitoba government has no plans to change our laws.

You don't need a telescope to see the potential politics at play here. Katz has been an ongoing irritant to the Selinger government. It might be that any law that could cost the mayor his job is a law worth keeping.

Would they take the same view, however, if one of their own was ensnared by the law?

Brandon East MLA Drew Caldwell is Selinger's legislative assistant. According to reports filed with the Canada Revenue Agency and available on the CRA website, he was also a member of the board of directors of the Brandon Folk, Music and Art Society Inc. during the period from 2007 to August 31, 2011.

Annual returns filed by the BFMAS with the provincial Companies Office confirm Caldwell's status as a BFMAS director, with the Jan. 2, 2008, return identifying him as the board chairman.

The BFMAS is seeking a total of almost $4 million from all three levels of government -- more than $1 million from the Selinger government -- in order to convert the former Strand Theatre in downtown Brandon into a performing arts centre. The project has the backing of the provincial government and was referred to in both the 2009 throne speech and the 2011 provincial budget.

Provincial legislature voting records confirm Caldwell voted in favour of both the 2009 throne speech and the 2011 budget, and that could pose a big problem for Caldwell.

That is because it is illegal under the Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Conflict of Interest Act for an MLA to vote on any matter in which a corporation he is a director of has a financial stake. Though the rules do not apply where the amount involved is less than $500, the BFMAS had a vested interest of more than a $1 million in the 2011 budget, and Caldwell voted for it.

Only a judge can decide if Caldwell has breached the statute, but such a conclusion could expose him to the same fate as Ford and, potentially, Katz.

If you think that's an absurd result, consider the possibility that other government MLAs could be just as vulnerable as Caldwell. The standard of conduct is so arbitrary and unforgiving that is almost impossible for a politician to not breach the law in some small way during their political career.

That gives rise to the disturbing possibility that Manitoba's conflict-of-interest laws, if they are not fixed, could be used to overturn the results of elections and alter the balance of power at council tables and in the legislature. That such a possibility even exists is the ultimate absurdity of the current laws.

If Selinger is comfortable, as appears, with a law that could unseat a three-term mayor who received 55 per cent of votes cast in the 2010 mayoral election, is he equally comfortable with the prospect of a four-term NDP MLA losing his seat because he voted for a $10-billion provincial budget that also happened to mention the Strand project?

It's one thing when it's Sam Katz in the law's crosshairs. It may be a completely different matter when it is the premier's legislative assistant.

Manitobans want conflict-of-interest laws that impose high ethical standards of conduct, are clearly worded and easily enforced, and contain a range of sanctions that correspond to the seriousness of violations. The current laws -- at both the municipal and provincial level -- fall far short of those objectives.

Ontario is filling the loopholes and fixing the flaws in its laws. It is time for the Selinger government to put partisan politics aside and do the same in Manitoba.

Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2012 A14

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