Premier: Public standards bill must be rewritten
Premier Alden McLaughlin has acknowledged that some changes must be made to a law requiring financial disclosures from local politicians, top civil servants and appointed government board members before that legislation takes effect.
“We have had significant push-back from many people who are serving on commissions or boards,” Premier Alden McLaughlin said during a late-night finance committee hearing last month. “There is the threat, quite frankly, of mass resignations if the law comes into force in its present form.”
The Standards in Public Life Law requires any “person in public life,” within 90 days of assuming the functions of his or her office, to make a declaration to the Commission for Standards in Public Life of their income, assets and liabilities acquired during the previous year.
During the finance committee meeting, Deputy Governor Franz Manderson was asked by East End MLA Arden McLean if there had been any concerns expressed about the public standards law.
Mr. Manderson replied that there had been some issues brought to the attention of the deputy governor’s office and Governor Helen Kilpatrick, mainly by appointed board members worried about how the phrase “connected persons” would be defined in the law.
The legislation defines a connected person as anyone who “acts on behalf of, or for the benefit of” the person making the required financial declaration. This can include an employee, a co-worker, a company, a trust or a family member.
For example, according to section 12 of the current law, which was passed but is not yet in effect: “In making a declaration required [under the law], a person in public life shall include, in relation to himself and any connected person, details relating to – [subsection 1e] any land, whether beneficial or otherwise.”
Mr. McLaughlin said many of the issues raised were “specifically with respect to concerns around connected persons.”
“The way it’s defined is so broad and far-reaching that it’s almost endless in its implications,” Mr. McLaughlin said.
The premier discussed the matter with Governor Kilpatrick and he said it was agreed not to bring the public standards law into effect until the matter is sorted out.
“We don’t want people leaving [government boards] en masse,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “I don’t know who will run all of these things if we wind up scaring everybody away.
“It is one thing for elected members, who put ourselves on the line, to be required to disclose everything … and for senior public servants. It’s quite another thing to ask volunteers … to be held to the same standard with respect to disclosures.”
The premier said he was not able to clarify the specifics of the proposed amendments during the committee hearing.
“We’re going to look at the whole definition of ‘connected persons,’” he said.
Another potential change that will be considered, Mr. McLaughlin said, is the extent to which appointed board members would have to publicly disclose their personal assets.
The premier said it had been suggested that board members could register their assets where it would be accessible to those “who need to investigate these things,” but where members of the general public would not be able to obtain such information.
The current Register of Interests Law, which will be replaced when the public standards law takes effect, requires disclosures of any pecuniary interest or material benefit that might “reasonably be thought by others to influence [a person’s] actions …” and requires the following people to register: elected members of the Legislative Assembly, the Speaker of the House, the chief secretary [a position that no longer exists], the attorney general, the financial secretary, the registrar of interests [in this case the Legislative Assembly clerk], nominated political candidates and “any person having received permission to attend a meeting of the Legislative Assembly, or a meeting of any of its committees, for the purpose of reporting in any newspaper of periodical, or in any radio or television broadcast, the meeting or any matter related to the meeting.”
The new Standards in Public Life Law will set quite a different standard for disclosure requirements and, while it leaves journalists off the list, adds a significant number of public sector employees or board members who must file disclosures.
There has been some confusion as well amongst the public service with government employees about who should report under the new law and who should not. Commissions Secretariat manager Deborah Bodden has said her office is compiling a list of civil service positions that must file disclosure forms.