Can B.C.'s conflict-of-interest commissioner deal properly with an allegation against Premier Christy Clark, even though his son is a longtime friend of the premier and an official in her government?
Most likely, but it shows the government needs a Plan B for such situations, such as a deputy commissioner or a choice of alternates when a conflict comes a little too close to the commissioner.
Conflict commissioner Paul Fraser has been asked to determine if Clark contravened the Member's Conflict of Interest Act by participating in cabinet meetings that discussed the sale of B.C. Rail in 2003. Clark recused herself from a vote in the legislature and from one cabinet meeting, noting that her then-husband, Mark Marissen (they have since divorced), had done consulting work for the company that was handling the bidding process.
The commissioner's son, John Paul Fraser, is an assistant deputy minister in the provincial government's communications department. He has been quoted as saying he has known the premier for more than 20 years, and he worked on her leadership campaign. He also worked for Marissen at Burrard Communications, a government-relations firm.
The connections don't bother Paul Fraser. "I don't perceive a problem in making a decision in this case that will have nothing to do with my son's career," he told a Vancouver Sun reporter.
But those connections are still bothersome, if not downright troubling. That isn't to cast aspersions on Paul Fraser - his credentials and experience show he is the right person for the job - but avoiding conflict alone is not enough. The appearance of and opportunity for conflict should also be avoided.
Conflict-of-interest rules should put up a protective barrier that works both ways, safeguarding the public good, while also shielding civil servants and elected officials from suspicion and accusations.
Paul Fraser says he will make his decision based on fact, without fear or favour, and Clark's office says John Paul Fraser will not be party to any discussions involving the investigation. Those statements do not erase the fact that the conflict commissioner's son is a senior official in the premier's government, which in itself is a conflict.
In a province the size of B.C., there are no six degrees of separation, especially in government circles. Anyone qualified to be conflict commissioner would of necessity have experience working with government, the sort of experience that creates all sorts of relationships and connections. It would be incredibly difficult to find someone for the job who didn't know anyone in government, or didn't have some connection to people in government.
You wouldn't want a conflict commissioner who had absolutely no potential for being in conflict at some time or another - that would be a person who didn't know anything or anyone, and who couldn't be effective.
That's why the province should have a backup plan, say, two or three alternate commissioners to choose from when the potential for conflict arises.
As in matters of justice, conducting the public business must not only be done properly, it must be seen to be done properly.
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