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'It had an effect': Former ethics czar Dawson on Trudeau trip findings
Former conflict of interest and ethics commissioner Mary Dawson says that she believes her report on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has had an impact, and shows that the ethics act could use amending.
"It had an effect," Dawson told the House of Commons ethics committee.
- Scroll down or click here to recap our live coverage from the meeting
Dawson appeared before the committee on Wednesday to discuss her report on the prime minister’s controversial family vacation to the Aga Khan's private island. In the report she concluded that Trudeau contravened federal ethics rules in four ways.
During her testimony, the former commissioner said that as a result of her report, Trudeau has now promised to clear all future family trips he takes ahead of time, and that attention has been brought to potential deficiencies in the Conflict of Interest Act currently, that her work was purposeful, even though her findings bared no real consequences for the prime minister other than publicity.
In an interview later on Wednesday with CTV’s Power Play, Dawson denied that her findings on the Trudeau file were the most egregious she saw during her stint as ethics watchdog, though they were the first of their kind regarding a sitting prime minister.
“No. It was the most noticeable one,” she told Power Play host Don Martin. “It was an error made, a miscalculation. It was highly noticeable because he was the prime minister.”
During her Wednesday appearance before the committee, MPs asked for more details on information presented in her report, as well as revisited her recommendations to strengthen or clarify the act, as she advocated for on a number of occasions during her decade as commissioner.
These considerations will be taken by the committee as they conduct a study on possible changes to the Act this year.
"The Trudeau Report has focused renewed attention on the Conflict of Interest Act and its perceived weaknesses," Dawson said. "I believe there is room for improvement."
Dawson not supportive of tougher penalties
However, one area Dawson advocated against amending, was the penalties portion. Freshly off the job, Dawson said she doesn’t think that the act should have more teeth than it currently does.
The only penalties written into the act currently are administrative monetary penalties, regarding reporting things like gifts, within the prescribed timelines.
“I’m not of the view myself that more stringent penalties are required… in my view, publicity and the test of reelection make up the appropriate form of redress,” Dawson told the committee.
Afterwards, speaking to reporters, Dawson said “the publicity is bad enough.”
Her appearance, and subsequent comments, were made "as an individual" considering that she left her commissioner post on Jan. 8. The Liberals appointed Mario Dion, former Immigration Refugee Board chair, to replace her.
Tories try again to get Trudeau to testify
Dawson’s testimony came one day after the Liberals on the committee defeated a motion to invite Trudeau to testify.
At the end of the meeting, Conservative MP Peter Kent tried again to pass a motion inviting him, in light of Dawson’s testimony, but that attempt was also unsuccessful. The Liberal majority defeated the similar, but different motion by six votes to three.
Kent said that Dawson’s testimony added to his argument to have the prime minister appear, though he would not say if he would try again to invite him.
'I probably would have said no'
Dawson also said that she "probably would have said no," if Trudeau had approached her about taking this trip ahead of time, if the same facts were presented then as she had when authoring the report.
"I probably would have said no… If I knew everything I knew here, that’s the advice I would give," Dawson said.
“If I found out the vacation was to take place on the Aga Khan’s island, I probably would have looked around to see what the Aga Khan was doing in the government,” she told Power Play.
She also issued a warning to politicians: while you’re free and fine to have friends, “be careful when the friends have a business relationship with you.”
The definition of 'friends'
The Liberals focused many of their questions on the lack of a definition of friendship under the act.
Dawson told the committee she thinks the exemption in the ethics act regarding gifts for friends should be removed, saying it often leads to confusion, and attempting to define what a friend is for the purpose of the act would be difficult, because "friends can have all sorts of different meanings to different people."
“I think we can do without that exception quite nicely,” she told Power Play. “I am reminded that was a proposed suggestion when it went through the Senate the first time, the act, that they not include that friend exception.”
Dawson's report on Trudeau found the exception did not apply to the prime minister’s visit to the spiritual leader’s private island, noting the trip would have been unlikely "had there not been official interactions between the government of Canada and the Aga Khan, and had Mr. Trudeau not become a significant player on the Canadian political scene."
In this case, Trudeau had argued that he didn’t think to clear the trip with the commissioner’s office ahead of time because he and the Aga Khan -- the Ismaili Muslim spiritual leader -- are close family friends.
Dawson, in her report, said that the evidence presented did not suggest the pair’s relationship was that of close friends. She also found that he would have likely been in trouble if they had been friends, because he didn’t recuse himself from two meetings discussing a $15 million federal grant to the Aga Khan’s Global Centre for Pluralism.
NDP MP Nathan Cullen told reporters after the meeting that he finds it “strange” that Trudeau continues to use the friend argument, including when questioned about ethics at Tuesday night’s town hall in Nova Scotia, given that he’s known for a while that the ethics commissioner thinks it didn’t hold water.
'The Trudeau Report' findings
In her Dec. 20 report, Dawson found Trudeau to have contravened federal ethics law in regards to the Bahamian trip by:
• Failing to arrange his private affairs to avoid being in conflict of interest;
• Accepting the gift of accommodations on the private island, by someone who is registered to lobby his office;
• Travelling on non-commercial aircraft chartered by the Aga Khan; and
• Not recusing himself from discussions that provided an opportunity to further the Aga Khan's interests.
Trudeau and his family were joined on the Dec. 2016 trip by Liberal MP and now Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan and his husband, as well as Liberal Party president Anna Gainey and her husband.
The report also notes that a "senior American official of a previous administration" -- later revealed to be former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry -- and friends were present during the Dec. 2016 stay.
The Aga Khan Foundation was registered to lobby Trudeau at the time of the Bahamian vacation.
Her findings made Trudeau the first prime minister to have been found in contravention of the federal conflict of interest rules. The Conflict of Interest Act came into force in 2006, under former prime minister Stephen Harper.
"We respect and obviously accept the full report of the Commissioner," said Trudeau at the time.
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