Inadequate rules create continuing conflict issues

Earlier this week, it was learned new Tory MLA Obby Khan is being sued by one of his partners in the Green Carrot Juice Company in an effort to recoup a $562,000 investment. Although the related allegations have not been proven in court, what is known is that Mr. Khan did not list his interest in the company in question in his MLA disclosure to the conflict of interest commissioner.

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Opinion

Earlier this week, it was learned new Tory MLA Obby Khan is being sued by one of his partners in the Green Carrot Juice Company in an effort to recoup a $562,000 investment. Although the related allegations have not been proven in court, what is known is that Mr. Khan did not list his interest in the company in question in his MLA disclosure to the conflict of interest commissioner.

A spokesman for the premier’s office indicated Mr. Khan was not required under current conflict of interest rules to disclose an interest in a company that does not provide a source of income, which this company does not. So he did not list it in his public disclosure.

The current rules seem to be at the heart of every conflict of interest concern involving a Tory MLA — and there have been several — as each is accompanied by a claim that they were only following the current rules. Such claims mostly serve to demonstrate the current rules are, to put it bluntly, woefully inadequate.

The PC government seems to have admitted as much. It commissioned a report from its conflict commissioner regarding how to build a more accountable and transparent COI regime, and the report concluded Manitoba has the weakest rules in the country.

Progressive Conservative MLA Obby Khanis being sued by one of his partners in the Green Carrot Juice Company in an effort to recoup a $562,000 investment. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The government even passed new conflict of interest rules, but has opted not to proclaim them until after the next election, scheduled for the fall of 2023. Given that Mr. Khan is the latest in a string of Tories to face conflict of interest allegations, one wonders why there was any delay in bringing in new rules.

Former premier Brian Pallister failed to report the existence of holding companies that were connected to his vacation property in Costa Rica. At the time, Mr. Pallister claimed the rules did not require him to disclose.

There were more conflict of interest charges when he participated in a government directive to keep private insurance brokers an integral part of Manitoba Public Insurance’s move to online insurance services. Mr. Pallister, who continued to be a licensed insurance broker throughout his time as premier, claimed the rules allowed him to be involved because his business did not sell Autopac insurance.

More recently, we learned Premier Heather Stefanson failed to disclose the sale of $31 million in real estate holdings. At first the premier apologized for the oversight, but later she claimed she had, in fact, disclosed the information — to the commissioner, but not publicly.

Such things tend to be abundantly clear to the general public, so it’s astounding a government would not take decisive action to strengthen the rules.

It is unclear whether the new rules coming into force a year from now will remedy this situation. Governments of all stripes in Manitoba (remember the NDP’s Tiger Dam contract fiasco?) have failed in succession to create rules to adequately police themselves. However, even the most casual observer of these stories knows the public has a right to a clear understanding of the business relationships of its MLAs.

Mr. Pallister’s business holdings in Costa Rica should have been disclosed, and he should not have been involved in any directives involving private insurance brokers. Ms. Stefanson should have disclosed, publicly and in a timely fashion, her real estate windfall. And Mr. Khan should have been forthcoming about his companies, regardless of whether he derives income from them.

Such things tend to be abundantly clear to the general public, so it’s astounding a government would not take decisive action to strengthen the rules.

It is the right thing to do. And if that isn’t motivation enough, the current government could look at it simply as an opportunity to avoid future scandals. Particularly in light of the Tories’ current polling numbers, that would be a most helpful outcome.

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