Lamont’s court gambit serves multiple purposes

Is it pure, partisan political posturing, or an earnest endeavour seeking accountability and justice?

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Opinion

Is it pure, partisan political posturing, or an earnest endeavour seeking accountability and justice?

Chances are, the decision by Manitoba Liberal Party leader Dougald Lamont to initiate a court proceeding aimed at holding Premier Heather Stefanson to account for conflict-of-interest (COI) violations qualifies as pretty much equal measures of both.

Mr. Lamont took the highly unusual action — unprecedented, in the assessment of the province’s ethics commissioner, Jeffrey Schnoor — in response to revelations (first reported by the Free Press in January) that Ms. Stefanson, while serving as a cabinet minister, breached the Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Conflict of Interest Act by not declaring the sale of three properties in 2016 and 2019, for a total of $31 million, in which she had financial interest.

Citing the toothlessness of the current COI legislation to impose any meaningful consequences on elected officials who violate the act’s provisions, the Liberal leader took it upon himself to pay a $300 fee — as is the right of any citizen — and file a detailed affidavit in Court of Queen’s Bench asking a judge to authorize a hearing into the matter.

DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES
Manitoba Liberal Party leader Dougald Lamont will appear in court on May 18 to ask that the case be heard.

Mr. Lamont will appear in court on May 18 to ask that the case be heard.

As has been well documented, the issue at hand stems from reports Ms. Stefanson failed to file, as required, statements disclosing the sale of three properties that had for years been listed among her assets but which she had suddenly stopped including on the list. When confronted with the unexplained omissions, she passed their absence off as “an oversight.”

“It is a pretty extraordinary situation where a minister was selling millions of dollars of property, and that minister failed to disclose that to the legislature,” said Mr. Lamont.

Surely, even in the deep-pocketed circles in which the current premier clearly travels, it stretches plausibility past the breaking point to suggest $31 million in asset sales is something one might offhandedly forget.

Under the province’s current COI legislation, the commissioner has no power to investigate alleged breaches of the act by an MLA. The only legal recourse that might lead to punitive consequences — in this case, measures ranging from moderate suspensions or fines to removal from office and a demand for restitution — is the avenue down which Mr. Lamont has opted to tread.

“It is a pretty extraordinary situation where a minister was selling millions of dollars of property, and that minister failed to disclose that to the legislature.” – Dougald Lamont

There does exist new legislation that affords a newly renamed COI commissioner more direct recourse options, but the current government — for reasons unexplained but not overly difficult to decipher — opted to have the Conflict of Interest (Members and Ministers) Act not come into effect until after the next provincial election.

That is, of course, nonsensical. The new law should have been enacted immediately upon its passage. And the cynical manner in which the now Stefanson-led government has handled its creation renders any accusations that Mr. Lamont’s court foray is political gamesmanship flatly impotent.

Perhaps the best way to expose the folly of a preposterous law and an absurd denial of responsibility is with a peculiarly fanciful legal gambit. Fighting inanity with frivolity, so to speak.

“This is not personal, and it is not political. This is about the law,” Mr. Lamont said in a news release issued last week. One might be inclined to edit the statement slightly, excising “not” from its two strategic positionings and inserting an additional “and” in order to create a unified assertion that is truly reflective of its full intent.

“This is not personal, and it is not political. This is about the law.” – Dougald Lamont

And presumed purpose notwithstanding, Mr. Lamont has set in motion a process that might require from Ms. Stefanson, in terms of explanation, something more elucidative than languid protestations of a $31-million oversight.

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