Author by :JOHN CHILIBECK Legislature Bureau
Photo by : JOHN CHILIBECK Legislature Bureau
Liberal MLA Donald Arseneault is under fire for accepting a second job in Ottawa as he continues to serve as an MLA for the Campbellton-Dalhousie riding.
FREDERICTON • New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant has given an ultimatum to a veteran politician – either quit one of your two jobs or face removal from the Liberal caucus.
The ultimatum comes following two weeks of controversy, with the opposition charging that Donald Arseneault, a former minister responsible for labour, is in a conflict of interest, even if he is technically following the law.
The premier said Thursday his caucus would not longer accept Arseneault sitting as a Liberal MLA for Campbellton-Dalhousie while he works as a government relations manager for Canada’s Building Trades Unions in Ottawa, a job he took last month.
“We’ve made it very clear to him he needs to make a choice between the job and sitting in our caucus,” the premier told reporters after a heated question period. “Of course we’re not happy. I don’t think anybody in the caucus is happy to have to go through this. And, at the same time, it’s obviously very difficult for the caucus to make this kind of decision, but it’s the right one to do.”
Arseneault was in the house briefly Thursday morning and then left. He did not immediately return messages. On Wednesday, the veteran politician told Brunswick News he agreed with opposition parties that conflict laws that allowed him to take on a second job need to change, even if he has to quit his new position.
Gallant said he hadn’t personally spoken to Arseneault over the last couple of weeks, but several members of the caucus had. He said Arseneault had been told earlier this week he had to make a decision on the ultimatum no later than Friday because of “a perceived conflict of interest.”
Canada’s Building Trades Unions represents more than 500,000 construction workers. Arseneault has denied he is a lobbyist of any kind after initially telling Brunswick News he would only deal with the federal government, not New Brunswick’s government, in the new job.
He changed his story late last week after revisiting the integrity commissioner to seek clarification of his role. He also publicly released the original letter the retired judge had given him. The letter, from commissioner Alexandre Deschênes on Sept. 14, said the MLA was not to lobby any public entities in his new job.
Progressive Conservative MLA Ted Flemming, the province’s former attorney general, told reporters Thursday it shouldn’t have taken so long for the premier to act.
“The premier is now of the opinion, which we have been from the get-go, that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable and brings disrespect to anyone who holds public office,” Flemming said.
“It’s unfortunate it took him so long to reach that conclusion, and it’s also unfortunate he had to reach that conclusion by public outrage, public outcry and the efforts of the opposition.”
The premier said he didn’t act right away because Liberal officials initially believed what Arseneault had initially told them – that he had been cleared by the integrity commissioner to do the two jobs.
Once they saw the letter’s contents last Friday – which under law, the privacy commissioner couldn’t release without the consent of the person getting the advice – Gallant said they realized a perceived conflict of interest did, in fact, exist.
Last Friday was also when Arseneault released the contents of a letter the premier had sent him on Aug. 22 saying he was being relieved of his labour portfolio because he was considering a job with the labour organization.
In question period Thursday, the Tories repeatedly asked the premier about that date. In four provincial government news releases after Aug. 22 and before Arseneault officially resigned from cabinet Sept. 5, he was referred to as the minister of post-secondary education, training and labour. No mention was made he had been relieved of his labour portfolio.
Gallant ignored the questions, but a staffer from his office took the unusual step of handing out to reporters printouts of old emails showing that important government officials knew about the change to Arseneault’s portfolio as of Aug. 22.
Tuesday, Oct. 24
“Basically, it is a national organization that needed a director of government relations. And I want to make it very clear, it is not government relations with the province of New Brunswick. It is with the federal government, specifically. … Prior to accepting this position, I sat down with the ethics commissioner and we went through the whole situation where he gave me a clean bill of health – with limitations not to do any interactions with the provincial government concerning my new responsibilities.”
Thursday, Oct. 26:
“If you know anything about the Canadian Building Trades, every province has a provincial council, a provincial building trades union. They deal with provincial jurisdictions. I have no dealings with the province of New Brunswick. My role as government relations manager is to deal with the federal government, with what’s happening in Ottawa. I have no dealings at all with what’s happening in New Brunswick.”
Friday, Oct. 27:
“There seemed to be a misunderstanding on the legislation. Anything that has to do with lobbying has been removed from my responsibilities.”
Wednesday, Nov. 1:
“This is a national organization who was looking for someone to help them with public relations, internal relations between their national, provincial and local groups and relations with major project owners. This job isn’t about lobbying – it was about taking the skills I demonstrated as a public representative and putting them to work in the private sector. My employer has indicated that they can easily remove any activity from my job that even appears as lobbying.”
Monday, Oct. 23:
“For us, what’s important is the conflict-of-interest commissioner would go through it with anyone that would have any other responsibility while sitting as an MLA. Mr. Arseneault did go to the conflict-of-interest commissioner to ask his opinion and I can only assume he’s following the recommendations, and if he’s not, I’m sure we’ll hear from the commissioner.”
Thursday, Nov. 2:
“We were told it was cleared with the integrity commissioner. We then found out that was not the case, in the sense that he did not get advice that it was OK to lobby outside of New Brunswick. He did, in fairness to the member, get advice that it was OK to get a second job as long as he did no lobbying whatsoever. We believe, given that advice, there’s an apparent conflict of interest and he has to make a choice whether he’ll stay with us in the Liberal caucus or if he continues that job where there’s an apparent conflict of interest.”