NDP, Conservatives call for probes into Bill Morneau’s assets
The NDP and Conservatives both went after Bill Morneau in separate news conferences Tuesday morning, pushing for fresh investigations and disclosures linked to his personal assets even as the federal ethics commissioner stood by her advice to the embattled finance minister.
The NDP’s Nathan Cullen cited a specific example of the kind of decision Morneau is making as a member of cabinet that could, in theory, benefit him personally if he has not rid himself of his shares in his former company, Morneau Shepell.
WATCH: Conservatives want to know why Bill Morneau won’t tell Canadians about his assets
It was revealed over the weekend that Morneau had not placed the shares in a blind trust. It’s unclear if he has sold them. The Conflict of Interest Act typically allows for only those two options in the case of shares controlled directly by a public office holder.
At the time of the 2015 election, the minister owned 2.07 million common shares in Morneau Shepell, a company founded by his father. Those shares could be worth about $43-45 million today.
“Mr. Morneau has sponsored Bill C-27,” Cullen explained on Tuesday with the help of a chart held up by a staff member.
“Bill C-27 affects pensions, it’s a transfer of pension risk from employee to employer. The problem with this situation is that Mr. Morneau is still involved with Morneau Shepell, who predominantly works in the field of pension and pension shifting.”
Bill C-27 could, therefore, “directly benefit” the finance minister, Cullen argued.
WATCH: Finance minister Bill Morneau addresses why his assets are not in a blind trust
That said, it is a piece of legislation like any other, subject to both debate and votes in the Liberal-dominated House of Commons.
On Monday night, the NDP wrote to federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson formally asking her to launch an investigation into the matter.
On Parliament Hill for a committee appearance on Tuesday, Dawson herself said she “can’t confirm anything” regarding possible investigations into Morneau’s shares. She also refused to divulge any new information about the current status of those shares.
“We follow the procedures that are in the Act,” the ethics commissioner said, explaining that Morneau’s assets may not have been considered “controlled assets” when she advised him what to do with them.
“A controlled asset is something that somebody holds … so sometimes the asset is not directly held.”
Dawson added that “everything that I can put out publicly is on the record,” and confirmed that she did tell Morneau a blind trust wasn’t necessary.
“I didn’t ask him not to put (the shares in a blind trust), I said it wasn’t necessary,” Dawson clarified to reporters.
But the Conservatives remain as unconvinced as the NDP. Finance critic Pierre Poilievre said he has deep concerns over Morneau’s “vast” powers as finance minister, which include control over taxation, regulation and subsidies.
“This minister has vast personal holdings, something for which we do not blame him, and by itself we do not see as a problem,” Poilievre said.
“The solution to any Member of Parliament or minister having such vast holdings is transparency. The public has the right to know if the number one financial decision-maker in this country has financial interests that may conflict with the public interest.”
Morneau had more onerous disclosure requirements when he was employed at Morneau Shepell, Poilievre argued.
“He knows where his holdings are,” he added. “We’re calling on Minister Morneau to tell the Canadian public if he has sold those shares, and where he has put his holdings.”
The Conservatives are also using their opposition day in the House of Commons to table a motion calling on Morneau to disclose all the documents he provided to the ethics commissioner.
Morneau has maintained that he followed Dawson’s advice on his personal holdings to the letter and that he has no problem placing shares in a blind trust if she advises him to do so.
WATCH: Justin Trudeau makes jokes, answers questions for Morneau
An ethical ‘screen’
For now, Morneau is subject to what is called a conflict-of-interest “screen.”
According to the ethics commissioner’s office, these screens are “generally used if reporting public office holders are in a position where there is a significant possibility that they will be involved in discussions or decision-making that could affect their own private interests or those of a relative or a friend or an organization with which they have been associated.”
In Morneau’s case, his chief of staff is charged with ensuring that he isn’t involved in decisions that would specifically affect Morneau Shepell.
But Duff Cornacher, co-founder of the advocacy group Democracy Watch, said in a release Tuesday that this type of screen is virtually useless.
“Because of a huge loophole in the Conflict of Interest Act, Cabinet ministers and other senior government officials are all allowed to participate in or make any decision that applies generally,” he wrote.
“Almost all decisions made by ministers, their staff, and appointed senior government officials (all of whom are covered by the Act) apply generally.”
Cornacher is also questioning the usefulness of a blind trust, because Morneau would still know that he owns shares in Morneau Shepell, even if he had no control over those shares.
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