Trudeau says ‘it sucks’ when ethics breaches occur, but system is working

On the heels of the latest confirmed ethics breach within his cabinet, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says, while “it sucks” when such cases of improper conduct arise, the fact the public knows about them is a sign the system is working.

“We have a system that has the kind of accountability and transparency that works and that is clear to reassure Canadians that if someone is taking advantage of the system — either deliberately or by accident — they’ll get caught and called out on it. And that’s an example of the institutions working,” Trudeau said in a year-end conversation with Chief News Anchor and Senior Editor of CTV National News Omar Sachedina, airing in full on Dec. 31.

“Now, from my perspective, it sucks. Because you don’t want people to be making mistakes, you want people to be able to focus on delivering good things for Canadians.”

Over the course of his time as prime minister, Trudeau and members of his cabinet have been found to have breached federal ethics rules, while others faced investigations where no contravention of the Conflict of Interest Act was established.

CONFLICTS RELATED TO AGA KHAN, SNC-LAVALIN, WE CHARITY

Trudeau was the first prime minister to find himself on the wrong side of federal conflict of interest rules after the Conflict of Interest Act took effect under former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2006.

Trudeau’s first breach — as deemed by then-ethics commissioner Mary Dawson in 2017 — was in connection to his Christmas 2016 trip with family and friends to the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas. At the time, the PM vowed to behave “differently” in the future.

In 2018, now-Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc was found under current Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion to have breached conflict of interest rules in connection to granting an Arctic surf clam licence to a company that employed a family member during his time as fisheries minister.

In 2019, Trudeau was found to have broken the federal Conflict of Interest Act in relation to the SNC-Lavalin scandal, by seeking to influence Jody Wilson-Raybould in “many ways.”

In 2021, both Trudeau and then-finance minister Bill Morneau were subjects of an ethics investigation in connection to the controversy surrounding a 2020 cabinet decision to pay WE Charity millions to manage a student summer service program, despite close personal family connections to the charity.

Ultimately, Dion ruled that Trudeau did not breach the Conflict of Interest Act in relation to his involvement in granting WE Charity the federal contract, but Morneau placed himself in a conflict of interest “on several occasions.”

Most recently, it was International Trade Minister Mary Ng who had to apologize after Dion found that she “twice failed to recognize a potential conflict of interest involving a friend” and broke ethics rules by contracting a friend’s company to assist with communications. Ng has said she takes “full responsibility,” but Conservatives have called for her to resign.

CONFLICT RULES LARGELY PENALTY-FREE

Asked how these breaches keep happening, Trudeau said that his government is focused on the work they promised to accomplish and “when you do lots of things, every now and then people are going to make mistakes.”

“That is why it’s a good thing that we have a system that catches those mistakes, that calls them out that, you know, shares them with Canadians, that we explain. And Canadians get to decide whether it was an honest mistake or whether someone was trying to fill their pockets.”

Under the federal Conflict of Interest Act there are no penalties for being found in contravention of the rules, because the Act, as it is currently written, doesn’t allow for them. The only penalties written into the law are administrative monetary penalties related to reporting gifts within the prescribed timelines, for example. Having the public alerted to politicians’ breaking of the ethics rules has largely been the only consequence for these contraventions. 

While the prime minister has not signalled a desire to make changes to the system that would result in stronger penalties, he said the Liberals will continue to learn from their mistakes and “make sure people are being careful” going forward.

You can watch the full interview with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on New Year’s Eve. A conversation with the prime minister hosted by CTV’s Omar Sachedina will air on Dec. 31 at 7 p.m. across the country.

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