OTTAWA – There’s no need to rewrite the Harper government’s three-year-old ethics legislation to take account of issue raised by the Mulroney-Schreiber affair, say federal lawyers.
In a written brief filed with a public inquiry headed by Justice Jeffrey Oliphant, the Justice Department maintains that current conflict-of-interest rules are good enough to handle any problems that may arise in future.
“Considering that the Canadian ethics regime is one of the most regulated internationally, additional rules are not needed to strengthen the scheme,” wrote Paul Vickery, the head of the government’s legal team at the inquiry.
Oliphant has been delving into the financial dealings between former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney and businessman Karlheinz Schreiber, who hired Mulroney in 1993 to help promote armoured military vehicles marketed by the German firm Thyssen AG.
At the time the only ethical guidelines that continued to cover senior politicians once they left office were found in a code of conduct Mulroney himself had instituted in 1985, a year after he took power.
The code was later strengthened by Liberal prime ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin,. The rules were revised again in 2006 by Stephen Harper’s Tory government, which transformed what had been an essentially voluntary regime into a legally binding one.
The Conflict of Interest Act, brought in by Harper as part of a wider Federal Accountability Act, could cover the business dealings between Mulroney and Schreiber “if the events had occurred today,” Vickery wrote in his brief.
Critics have complained that key portions of the Harper legislation are ill-defined, ambiguous and subject to differing interpretations.
But Vickery said those problems will be resolved “over time” as federal ethics commissioner Mary Dawson, a former senior official with the Justice Department, delivers rulings on a case-by-case basis.
Dawson is to appear later this week at a round-table discussion organized to help Oliphant decide whether federal ethics policy should be revamped to guard against future abuses.
The judge has already concluded hearings into the specific facts of the Mulroney-Schreiber case but began a separate series of session Monday to air the broader policy concerns. He has until Dec. 31 to deliver a final report.
Mulroney has acknowledged he accepted $225,000 in cash from Schreiber to promote the so-called Bear Head project, which would have seen Thyssen establish a plant in Canada to build and export light-armoured vehicles.
The former prime minister says he lobbied political leaders in Russia, China and France to try to line up support for the purchase of Thyssen vehicles by the UN for peacekeeping work. He insists he broke no laws or ethical guidelines.
Schreiber contends the payments totalled $300,000 and says he hired Mulroney to lobby not foreign leaders but Canadian officials, something that could have put him in breach of the 1985 ethics code.
The controversial businessman is fighting extradition to Germany, where he faces charges of fraud, bribery, corruption and tax evasion.
Legal and academic experts commissioned by Oliphant to study the policy implications of the affair have taken different positions on whether reforms are needed to the current ethics regime.
Lori Turnbull, a Dalhousie University political scientist, has written a study agreeing with the government position that the present system would likely cover the Mulroney-Schreiber case if it arose today.
She recommended against trying to revise the law at this point, saying additional rules wouldn’t necessarily guarantee better compliance.
By contrast, Greg Levine, a London, Ont., lawyer also hired to advise the inquiry, urged a handful of amendments to clarify the fine points of the 2006 legislation.
The citizens group Democracy Watch has gone further, proposing dozens of reforms to tighten conflict-of-interest and lobbying rules and to beef up the enforcement powers of the ethics commissioner.