Manitoba’s weak conflict-of-interest laws
Last year, I brought a conflict-of-interest case against Premier Heather Stefanson. While a sitting MLA and cabinet minister, the premier sold off more than $30 million worth of real estate and didn’t disclose it.
All MLAs are supposed to disclose when they sell property like that, for a simple reason – voters and citizens should know when the people running their governments are getting multi-million-dollar cheques when in office.
Manitoba’s conflict-of-interest law is 40 years old, and it has always been weak. It takes real effort to break the rules, and even more effort to enforce them.
This is the first time Manitoba’s conflict of interest laws have ever been enforced, and I had to bring the case myself, because those are the rules. The conflict of interest commissioner cannot investigate.
As a citizen taking on this case, I had no powers of investigation, and could not compel the premier to turn over documents.
On March 10, the judge handed down the decision. She said Stefanson did break the rules, but because the premier said it was “inadvertent,” she could not impose a penalty.
The premier said it slipped her mind to disclose the transaction. She didn’t explain how she could forget a multi-million-dollar real-estate deal made by her family company.
I brought this case forward for two reasons.
First, to hold the premier to account because no one else would. The NDP wrote a letter of complaint, then let it drop.
Second, I did it to show how incredibly weak Manitoba’s conflict of interest laws are, and have been for 40 years.
While the Progressive Conservatives have passed a new Conflict of Interest Act, the old one is in place until the next election.
That means it’s still perfectly legal for the premier, members of cabinet and MLAs to actively own and run their own businesses. They can and do vote for targeted tax cuts and other measures that benefit their companies.
Insider trading is legal — if a cabinet minister or MLA knows about an upcoming change in legislation, they can tell friends or family to buy stock before the price soars. MLAs and their spouses can receive gifts of unlimited size – cash, trips, property. If they are over $250, they just have to declare them.
There is no requirement to disclose anything you own outside the province. Because MLAs don’t have to declare assets outside of Manitoba, an MLA can have shares of a company in a tax haven such as Costa Rica or the Barbados, and not declare it.
When you are a politician, you are supposed to serve the public, not yourself. It’s about trust.
Thirty-five years ago, one of the promises of Manitoba Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs in the 1988 election was “clear conflict-of -nterest legislation.”
If people want the benefits of doing the right thing, they need to face the consequences when they do wrong.
Business needs certainty. Democracy needs accountability because citizens must trust the people who work for them.
Finally, I felt I owed it to the people I represent to not let this matter drop, and to see it through to the end, because someone had to.
St. Boniface constituency report
Dougald Lamont is the MLA for St. Boniface and leader of the Liberal Party of Manitoba.