Can the provincial government tighten its conflict-of-interest laws without going too far?
That was the subject of debate on this week’s Political Panel, after New Brunswick Integrity Commissioner Alexandre Deschênes, in his annual report, called again for tougher legislation governing MLAs.
“The context here is so many people don’t trust politicians, have a low opinion of politicians. So you want a piece of legislation that is going to actually rebuild some of that trust and I think this process then is important.” – David Coon
Premier Brian Gallant has said that a ban on “perceived” conflicts may be too much and expressed concern that ministers or MLAs with a “weak” or slight connection to an issue might not be able to do their jobs.
Attorney General Serge Rousselle told the panel he shared those concerns. He said Green Party Leader David Coon raised an issue about St. Thomas University during question period recently even though his wife works for the university.
“Does that mean there’s a conflict of interest?” Rousselle asked. “How far does it go?
“If I’m a doctor, does it mean that I can’t become minister of health, because maybe I’m going to make a decision that relates to what I’ll be doing in the future?”
He later said he didn’t think Coon, who is also on the panel, had done anything wrong.
Coon said that since he was simply raising an issue, not voting on legislation, he didn’t think there was a conflict.
On the question of how to improve conflict-of-interest legislation, Coon said he thinks the New Brunswick government should form a committee so lawmakers can hear from witnesses and the public on what should be done.
“The context here is so many people don’t trust politicians, have a low opinion of politicians,” Coon said. “So you want a piece of legislation that is going to actually rebuild some of that trust and I think this process then is important.”
Progressive Conservative MLA Sherry Wilson argued the Liberal government “clearly hasn’t done enough to address this issue.”
“And it is an issue,” she said, pointing to Victor Boudreau’s perceived conflict of interest in dealing with Parlee Beach contamination as an example.
At the time, Boudreau had a 20 per cent ownership stake in a proposed campground at the beach. Last March, he said he was recusing himself from the file after a group of civil servants began considering a moratorium on development at the beach.
NDP Leader Jennifer McKenzie pointed to the controversy last fall over longtime Liberal cabinet minister Donald Arseneault’s decision to accept a lobbying job while still in the legislature as an example of why the province needs tougher conflict laws.
“It’s not easy, but there are other jurisdictions that do do it, and there are mechanisms of doing it that can catch a lot of things,” she said.