It’s not a conflict of interest if it happens in B.C.

by Dermod Travis,


When conflict of interest legislation is drafted to go out of its way to ensure that it won’t actually find any conflicts of interest, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if it rarely does. And that pretty well sums up the legislative reach of B.C.’s declawed Members’ Conflict of Interest Act.

So no great shock when Conflict of Interest Commissioner Paul Fraser decided last month that B.C. Premier Christy Clark hadn’t violated the act for failing to disclose – or for that matter remember – her past business relationship with RCI Pacific Gateway Education.

Fraser didn’t bother to wait for Clark’s promised request to his office for an opinion on the relationship before opining to Clark’s chief of staff, Dan Doyle, that the premier had done nothing wrong. And he’s right. Clark didn’t violate the act.

Even if the premier had remembered the RCI gig – and had been paid for it – Clark still wouldn’t have violated the act by failing to disclose her relationship, since she wasn’t a “member” of the legislature at the time. Based on the public record, she likely hasn’t violated the act by helping promote parent company RCI Capital Group on trade missions to Asia either, though Fraser didn’t touch on that issue in his letter to Doyle.

Since 2002, B.C.’s Conflict of Interest Commissioner has posted all of 15 opinions to the office’s website. And only once – in all of that time – did the Commissioner actually find a conflict, when in 2001 then Commissioner H.A.D. Oliver found against former Premier Glen Clark in a matter involving his handling of a casino license awarded to Dmitrios Pilarinos.

There may have been some finger-wagging in some of those other rulings, but no actual findings of malfeasance.

Fault the legislation, not the Commissioner, for this lopsided result. Under B.C.’s act, a “conflict of interest” or an “apparent conflict of interest” only exists if a member knows that “in the performance of the duty or function or in the exercise of the power there is the opportunity to further his or her private interest” or “that a reasonably well informed person could have (the perception) that the member’s ability to exercise an official power or perform an official duty or function must have been affected by his or her private interest.”

Note the narrow: “his or her private interest.” No one else’s.

Next door in Alberta, a MLA will breach that province’s conflict of interest act if “the Member uses the Member’s office or powers to influence or to seek to influence a decision to be made by or on behalf of the Crown to further a private interest of the Member, a person directly associated with the Member or the Member’s minor child or to improperly further another person’s private interest.”

Among Saskatchewan’s stipulations: a member must not “use information gained in the performance of public office that is not available to the general public to further the member’s private interest, his or her family’s private interest or the private interest of an associate.”

In Ontario, “a member of the Assembly shall not make a decision or participate in making a decision in the execution of his or her office if the member knows or reasonably should know that in the making of the decision there is an opportunity to further the member’s private interest or improperly to further another person’s private interest.”

Ironically, B.C. MLAs have crafted tougher conflict of interest rules for local governments than they have for themselves. And even those rules are a mishmash of incomprehensible whatyamacallits for many councillors.

And when it comes to their political afterlife, B.C. MLAs made certain they got off pretty easy too.

B.C. may have a cooling-off period for defeated or retired MLAs, but it would be better described as “a defrost for however long it takes to clear out of your legislature office.”

It’s how former Chilliwack MLA John Les can go from one day to the next issuing news releases as a MLA attacking Metro Vancouver’s proposed waste incinerator to being a paid lobbyist for a waste management firm that stands to benefit if the B.C. government puts the kibosh to that incinerator without anyone batting so much as an eyelid.


Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.

14 May 2014