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In order for any government to truly have the confidence of the people, it must not just do the right things, be open and transparent and act in an ethical and responsible manner but just as importantly it must be perceived as doing so.
And when we think about being open and transparent and acting ethically and responsibility, one of the aspects of governance that comes to mind is the whole concept of conflict of interest.
Conflict of interest can apply to government in a number of ways and we have seen a number of them raise their heads from time to time across numerous administrations.
Arguably, the time has come to review and to indeed make the changes required to ensure that these potential conflicts do not interfere with the administration of public office.
When we think of conflict, one such matter that comes to mind is this whole concept of conflict walls or “Chinese walls,” which was cited by a former top government bureaucrat in response to information which came to light regarding his involvement in litigation activities against government entities while holding the highest public service position in government. Are these conflict walls satisfactory in protecting the public interest?
Then we have the CEO of Nalcor being permitted under his employment contract to hold up to 5 per cent share in Fortis even though his predecessor was not afforded the same benefit.
Of course there is also a provision that whenever any discussion regarding Fortis comes up, he is to “abstain from the conversation.” That should allay any concerns the public might have about that arrangement, right?
And what about the issue of numbered companies which has recently come to light as part of the government’s deal with Canopy Growth? Should numbered companies receive any direct or indirect benefits from government without publicly disclosing the names of the individuals associated to that company?
Of course, then there’s the blind trust arrangement for cabinet members which allows their business interests to continue while that person holds public office by placing the business in someone else’s name.
This arrangement operates on the premise that the holder of this blind trust and the member in question will never speak or communicate in any way about the business while that member holds public office. Is that a realistic expectation?
Shouldblind trusts be permitted at all?
At the very least, while it may be argued reasonable to allow existing contracts to continue, should a minister’s business, even if in a blind trust, be permitted to enter into any new business arrangements with government? Should that business, even if in a blind trust, be permitted to receive any government grants and/or loans while that member is holding office? Should the public be paying to set up these blind trusts?
Finally, there is the issue of nepotism and political pork barreling which has arguably been occurring since Confederation. And while the current administration will point to the creation of the Independent Appointments Commission, there have been numerous examples in the last three years where former candidates, campaign workers and family members have been appointed to key positions within government. In addition, we still have the 13-week “emergency hires” going through the government departments versus the Public Service Commission, potentially allowing friends of the administration to get their “foot in the back door” to apply for internal public-service positons.
The concept of conflict of interest spans several aspects of government and the list of items raised in this opinion piece is certainly not an exhaustive one.
That is not to say that anyone is necessarily doing anything wrong as far as the “rules” go, because technically they probably are not.
However, it is the rules, the policies themselves that require further scrutiny.
Do these policies reflect the type of openness, transparency and fairness the public expects and deserves? Do they stand the test of what the public would consider appropriate ethical behaviour?
It is incumbent on government to review these matters and restore public confidence in how the people’s business is conducted.
Independent MHA Mount Pearl-Southlands