Mr. Chair and honourable members of the committee, I understand that you've invited me to appear before you today to speak about “The Report”. I'm not sure what I can add to what I've said in the report, but I'll try to answer any questions the committee may have.
I released “TheTrudeau Report” on December 20, 2017. It contains the conclusions of the examination I carried out under the Conflict of Interest Act and of the inquiry I conducted pursuant to the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons.
I will limit my observations today to issues pertaining to the act, in light of the mandate of the committee.
I understand that you also want to talk about the amendments that I've proposed, and we'll see what we can do about that. It's not what I've focused on in the last couple of weeks, but I have a copy of them here and whatnot.
I launched the examination and inquiry into Mr. 's conduct in January 2017 in response to requests for investigation from two members of the House of Commons. Those requests were prompted by media coverage of a vacation that and his family, along with several friends and their families, took on a private island owned by the Aga Khan from December 26, 2016 to January 4, 2017. I subsequently learned that Mr. Trudeau, his family, and other relatives had also vacationed on the island in December 2014, and members of his family and their guests had done so in March 2016 as well.
The Aga Khan, as the founder and chair of various charitable organizations, has a long-standing relationship with the Government of Canada, which since 1981 has contributed nearly $330 million to projects supported by the Aga Khan Foundation Canada. The foundation's CEO is registered to lobby the Government of Canada, including the 's Office.
Briefly, I found that Mr. Trudeau contravened four provisions of the Conflict of Interest Act, namely sections 5, 11, 12, and 21. I found that he did not contravene two other provisions: subsection 6(1) and section 7 of the act. I also found that he did not contravene the members' code.
As most of my findings hinged on Mr. 's acceptance on behalf of himself and his family the gifts of vacations on the Aga Khan's private island, I'll speak specifically about my findings of a contravention of subsection 11(1) of the act.
Subsection 11(1) sets out the act's gift rule. It prohibits public office holders and their family members from accepting “any gift or other advantage...that might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence the public office holder in the exercise of an official power, duty or function.” The test is not whether the donor intended to influence the recipient or whether the recipient was indeed influenced, but whether it might reasonably be seen that the gift or other advantage was given for that reason.
The evidence showed that there was ongoing official business between the Government of Canada and the Aga Khan and his institutions at the time each invitation to visit the island was accepted and that Mr. , as Prime Minister, was in a position to be able to advance some of the matters of interest to the Aga Khan, whether he did so or not. I therefore found that the gifts could reasonably be seen to have been given to influence Mr. Trudeau “in the exercise of an official power, duty or function.”
Subsection 11(2) sets out a number of exceptions to the gift rule set out in 11(1), including where the gift or other advantage is from a relative or friend, so I had to consider whether Mr. and the Aga Khan were friends for the purposes of the act, and interestingly, that exception is not in the code; there's not an exception for friends in the code.
The act does not define the word “friend”. It's a word that's used in different ways by different people and can apply to a range of relationships, from the closest of lifelong companions to neighbours, colleagues, acquaintances, or business associates who see each other only occasionally and have little emotional attachment.
Mr. 's relationship with the Aga Khan was based on a family connection rooted in a friendship between the Aga Khan and Mr. Trudeau's father. However, Mr. Trudeau had no personal or private interactions with the Aga Khan from 1983 until 2013, when Mr. Trudeau became leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, other than on the occasion of his father's funeral.
These factors led me to conclude that their relationship could not be described as one of friends for the purposes of the act, bearing in mind that friends can have all sorts of different meanings to different people. Instead, it appears to be one of two world leaders with common ideas and goals who have great respect for each other and whose families share a connection.
I also observed in “The Trudeau Report” that Mr. Trudeau said that he felt that as Prime Minister, he could now pursue a friendship with the Aga Khan. However, public office holders must put on hold the pursuit of friendships with individuals with whom they are likely to have official dealings when they are in public office.
“The Trudeau Report” has focused renewed attention on the Conflict of Interest Act and its perceived weaknesses, particularly the lack of penalties for breaches of its substantive provisions. The only penalties it provides for are administrative monetary penalties, which the commissioner may impose on reporting public office holders who fail to meet certain reporting requirements of the act.
I'm not of the view that more stringent penalties are required. It was never Parliament's intention that the act form part of the criminal system. Indeed, the act requires the commissioner to suspend an examination and notify the relevant authorities if he or she has reasonable grounds to believe that an offence has been committed under another act of Parliament. In my view, publicity and the test of re-election make up the appropriate form of redress for contraventions of the act and are sufficient to encourage compliance.
I also wish to address some comments that have been made on the time required to complete this report.
In my years as commissioner, I conducted all my examinations thoroughly and with a high degree of diligence, in keeping with the standards and practices I established for the office, the requirements of the act, and respect for procedural fairness. In each of my reports I provided a detailed description of the process that was followed and the information that was obtained. The amount of time it took to complete this or any other examination depended on a number of factors. They included the number of investigations under way, the number of case files being reviewed, the delays in scheduling witnesses and obtaining relevant documents from a variety of sources, and the report drafting and editing process, which can take some time as well.
Before I conclude my opening statement, I note that the committee has undertaken to conduct a new review of the act in early 2018. My experience in the last 10 years has been that the act has worked well overall. However, I believe there's room for improvement. I listed a large number of suggestions in the submission I made to this committee at the time of the five-year review. I'd be pleased to discuss my recommendations for amendments with the committee when it takes up the study.
Now I'll be happy—I hope—to answer any questions the committee may have.
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Ms. Dawson, I too will ask you questions in French, but please feel perfectly comfortable answering in the language of your choice.
First, I would like to thank you for the co-operation I have received from your office since I was elected, last year. I know that you receive many requests, because many things are left open to interpretation. When you are a new MP, you have to be very careful. Your office always answered all my queries fully, and I thank you.
In my opinion, your report is complete, so I won't necessarily ask questions on its content. And my colleagues have already asked some. I would instead like to hear a bit more about the context of assessments.
Your inquiry took place over a period of 11 months. We are nearing the end of the fiscal year. Do you think that in future inquiries similar to the one you've just carried out, certain steps or questions should be added to the process?
Just to explain why I didn't go beyond what.... First of all, I had recommended that the amendment be made in 2013, so then how could I start interpreting it in a different way? That's one thing. Also, in making my decision on how to interpret that, I looked at masses of other legislation, parallel legislation, either in other jurisdictions or in financial-type legislation federally, and almost to an act it says “direct or indirect”. In my act, it just said nothing, so you have to interpret that by looking at all the other uses in the legislation. That was the rationale behind that interpretation.
There are masses of things I could say about that area. There's much controversy amongst certain circles as to whether conflict of interest screens are appropriate. Conflict of interest screens are an additional mechanism to cover situations that aren't covered well by divestment.
I have recommendations relating to divestment that go to.... I think it's overly broad for some people. It matters if you have controlled assets. In many situations, it matters. You should get rid of them—put them in a trust—but in some cases, if somebody holds a public office that has nothing whatsoever to do with that and would never have a power that they could use with respect to the particular holding they have, sometimes that's a bit draconian. Some people like to manage their financial affairs, and I think there should be a conflict test in there for certain levels of people. There are a lot of interesting things in that area that could be fixed.
For the second trip, was invited as Prime Minister. I'm talking about the 2016 trip, probably in the summer. The Aga Khan was inviting people who occupied high-level positions. First, he invited the leader of the Liberal Party, and then he invited the Prime Minister on the second trip. If had won the leadership race of the party, he would have received the invitation, and not Justin Trudeau. Personally, as a member of Parliament, I have never received any invitation from the Aga Khan. The Aga Khan invites people who occupy high-level positions in a country. He must also have invited people from other countries.
Ms. Dawson, the discussions the Prime Minister had with the Aga Khan, whether he says they had any or not, do not relieve the Prime Minister of his responsibility with regard to the Aga Khan's foundations that are registered as lobbyists in Canada. Everything is interrelated.
The Prime Minister says that he is not the one who deals with the foundations and all of that. In fact, he may not deal with this personally, but he nevertheless has the responsibility to provide funds to these foundations. This money comes from Canadian taxpayers.
Why is he avoiding responsibility in all of this affair? You said in your report that this was not his responsibility and that he did not deal with these matters personally. However, the matter has been discussed in the media for close to a year now. I know from experience that when this type of issue is discussed in the media, the members put questions to the Prime Minister in the House, and he must answer. The Prime Minister has to make this a priority. He has to have intimate knowledge of the issues that come up regularly in the news in order to be able to answer questions. This becomes the responsibility of the Prime Minister and of the Office of the Prime Minister.
Why did you say that he did not have to deal with this, and that it was not important that he do so? It is as though you relieved him of any responsibility for all of the files involving funds given to the Aga Khan's foundations.
I don't think Hansard
will show that I said “cruel”. I hope that our treatment was tough but fair.
Obviously I voted for a similar motion yesterday. I don't need convincing, because I think it's an opportunity for the to come forward and answer some of the questions that Ms. Dawson can't answer because she didn't make the decisions that pertain to the four contraventions of the act. The Prime Minister did.
I saw it in his explanation at that press conference, and there was a question, I think, put to him in his town hall last night. In both cases, if you look at the record, they're non-answers. They are avoiding it. They go back to the “friend” argument, actually. Today I think a very important and incisive thing for me, following Ms. Dawson's report, is that one of the main pieces of the Prime Minister's defence of this particular decision in that same press conference was the utterance of friend, friend, friend, friend, as if that would have made it better.
What I learned today, and I hope my Liberal colleagues learned today, is that the aspect of the friendship would not in fact have made it better. It would have been a different contravention of the ethics act, that's all. He would have broken the rules in a novel and different way, but rules would still have been broken.
Obviously I am in favour of the idea of the coming, based upon on what I learned and what I still don't know. The appeal, similar to yesterday but now enhanced because of Ms. Dawson's testimony, would be to my Liberal colleagues to not vote as a bloc to suggest that the Prime Minister shouldn't testify. Open and accountable government, which I think is the name of the cabinet directive, would mean open and accountable government, which would be right here.
The questions that remain outstanding are whether the Prime Minister still relies on it being a friendship situation, in which it was just a gift. We don't know who asked for the trip. I asked Ms. Dawson this very specifically. It was not important to her, and I respect that, but who asked for the trip is important to me. Was the trip offered, or was the trip requested?
Motivation is important when you're dealing with conflicts of interest. If a member of Parliament—and I don't gesture towards you, Mr. Chair—goes out and solicits a gift, it's very different—maybe not in the final conclusion—from somebody offering a gift. The fact that the gift in this case, whether solicited or offered, would have broken the ethics act is just an additive, not a subtractive.
For me, the other questions that remain and that are in doubt are that the says he learned from this and he's admitted it was a mistake, but I don't know what specific steps his office has taken to not allow for this to happen again. I don't know if there are other circumstances in which a similar or the same thing has taken place.
Lastly, and I'll end on this, Mr. Chair, I heard from Mr. Erskine-Smith in his last question to Ms. Dawson about improvements to the act. All I've heard the say to this point—and his opinion matters on this, clearly, with a majority government—is a firm commitment that this Parliament will fix these loopholes and these problems within our ethics code so that future Prime Ministers, cabinet ministers, MPs—it doesn't matter—cannot attempt to exploit the same loopholes that exist within our ethics law. Until I hear the Prime Minister actually say that—and I'd love to ask him that question—the 35-second exchange in question period has proven to this point insufficient to drawing out the Prime Minister's true feelings about not only this trip but the need to improve our ethics code in this Parliament and the contravention of his own directive to his own cabinet ministers. I assume there are consequences to breaking his rules, but there appear to be no consequences for him if he broke those rules.
These seem to be substantive and real questions. I hope committee members would have seen today that the conversation with Ms. Dawson was both substantive and respectful in the way that we approached these questions. My respect for the Prime Minister's Office is such that having a Prime Minister come before us would merit and guarantee that same level of respect for him and his testimony.
I hope my Liberal friends are not only encouraged but also have questions that are the same as or similar to questions that I have, which can only and ultimately be answered by the , not in 35-second prepared sound bites in question period but in a substantive conversation like the one we've had here today.