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Parliament’s conflict-of-interest watchdog opens first-ever investigation into a PM’s activities
Jan. 16, 2017
By David Akin

The federal Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner has launched an investigation into the circumstances of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s New Year’s holiday in the Bahamas, the National Post has learned, the first time a sitting prime minister has come under scrutiny by the independent parliamentary watchdog.

The commissioner, Mary Dawson, is considering two potential violations of the Conflict of Interest Act, according to a letter she sent to one of the two Conservative MPs who filed separate formal complaints, about Trudeau’s holiday at the Bahamas Island owned by the billionaire philanthropist and spiritual leader the Aga Khan.

A copy of that letter was provided to the Post and in it, Dawson said she believes that, based on reports she has read in the National Post, there are grounds to investigate Trudeau for, first, a potential conflict of interest in receiving a free vacation from the Aga Khan, the founder and a director of an organization that is a federally registered lobbyist and, second, for potentially violating a section of the Act which prohibits all ministers from using private aircraft.

Dawson, in the letter to Conservative MP Blaine Calkins, writes that she is “of the view” that his request to open an investigation “satisfies the requirements” of that part of the Conflict of Interest Act which requires that the complainant  “set out reasonable grounds for the belief that the contravention has occurred.”

The maximum sanction that Dawson may levy for a violation of the Act is $500 per violation - a relatively paltry sum for a prime minister who earns more than $350,000 a year and gets a free home.

But while Trudeau might easily pay any fine, the political penalty may be more expensive. The opposition is almost certain to have a field day if Trudeau becomes the first prime minister in Canada’s history to violate a federal statute - a statute on ethics and conflict of interest, no less -  while in office.

The commissioner’s office and the current Conflict of Interest Act were creations of the Harper government in 2007. While Harper was accused by his opponents several times of unethical behaviour, he was neither the subject of any investigation nor any finding of any violation of the act during his time in office.

Trudeau, then, becomes the first prime minister to face the scrutiny of the commissioner, something he said last week he welcomed.

“I’ve said a number of times this was a  personal family vacation,” Trudeau told reporters Friday in Peterborough. “And any questions that the ethics commissioner has and that Canadians have, we’re happy to engage with.”

When Trudeau confirmed on Thursday that he had used the Aga Khan’s private helicopter to travel the 115 kilometres back and forth between Nassau and the Aga Khan’s private island, Trudeau said, “It’s something we look forward to discussing with the Conflict of Interest Commissioner but we don’t see an issue on that.”

The investigation, though, may also put a spotlight, on the relationship between Dawson and Trudeau.

Dawson’s seven-year-term of office ended in early January but Trudeau extended it for an additional six months while he determines who ought to get the next permanent seven-year appointment or whether he should extend Dawson’s contract again.

Duff Conacher, the founder of Democracy Watch, said that puts Dawson in a conflict-of-interest herself, investigating the very public office holder who has the power to extend her appointment or approve her re-appointment in six months.