Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro's epic meltdown in front of his neighbour's home last weekend allows an important debate to be reopened about the appearance of conflict of interest in political families and the weakness of Alberta's conflict-of-interest legislation with regard to politicians.
The United Conservative Party successfully shut down discussion of this problem after it was revealed Shandro and his wife, Andrea Shandro, are part owners of a supplementary health benefits company that sells coverage for services delisted by Shandro's ministry, or which the government may delist in future.
The UCP effectively ended the debate last week by making public a letter from ethics commissioner Marguerite Trussler stating no rules were broken by Shandro. UCP supporters also repeated still-unsubstantiated allegations Andrea Shandro received a death threat or threats as a result of the uproar on social media over her husband's ties to their business.
Trussler's March 20 letter to Speaker of the house Nathan Cooper stated that the company in which the minister's wife holds an interest, Vital Partners Inc., "is a partnership between Andrea Shandro and a third party. Ms. Shandro's interest is held through Shandro Holdings Inc. Minister Shandro is not a director of Shandro Holdings Inc. His shares in the company are held in a blind trust."
Furthermore, the letter said, before he was elected, Shandro rearranged his business affairs to be in compliance with the Conflicts of Interest Act.
Many members of the public remained uncomfortable with Trussler's ruling, however, because it was obvious there were potential benefits to Vital Partners Inc., and through it to Shandro Holdings Inc., from decisions Shandro had made or might make. For many people, in other words, the blind trust did nothing to prevent the appearance of conflict of interest.
They understood that the blind trust arrangements sufficient to meet the requirements of the Conflicts of Interest Act, which no one disputes Shandro made, are essentially meaningless in this situation because Shandro knows the business of his family company intimately, understands the nature of the company's business thoroughly, and is, presumably, in daily communication with the family holding company's other owner.
Shandro certainly was last Saturday when he and his partner in life and business marched down the street to the home of their Calgary neighbour, a physician and past UCP supporter whose profession comes under the ministerial responsibility of the health minister, to berate him in public and in front of his family for reposting an uncomplimentary social media meme.
Ordinary people troubled by the Shandro family's business arrangement understand that in circumstances like these, Shandro's blind trust, while entirely legal and sufficient to overcome the low bar set by the act, is what Joe Clark mockingly called a "Venetian blind trust, which the minister can open or shut, so long as the ethics commissioner agrees." Clark was questioning former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin's trust arrangements for the operation of his family steamship company when he made that comment in Parliament in February 2003.
Like Clark's observation about Martin's business affairs, Shandro's blind trust has many of the characteristics of a Venetian blind trust. Shandro certainly knows how his wife's company stands to benefit from his decisions, and he presumably speaks regularly enough with his wife to know how the family company and her insurance services company are both doing, whether or not they discuss those businesses in detail.
Moreover, we know from reading the report by CBC journalist Charles Rusnell that Shandro not only reads his wife's business emails, he responds to them on his government of Alberta email account!
Lord Chief Justice Hewart famously observed in R v Sussex Justices, ex parte McCarthy, a case that Shandro must have studied in law school, that "Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done."
In other words, justice wears a blindfold. She doesn't stand behind a Venetian blind that repeatedly snaps open and shut, depending on circumstances or mood.
It's obvious Shandro is extremely thin-skinned. Perhaps the stress of the COVID-19 crisis is getting to him, as it is to many of us.
If so, he needs to remember that his position is an important one. It it is essential that he demonstrate calm leadership and not throw a public tantrum whenever he is accused of self-interest or putting politics ahead of sound policy. If he is not up to that, he needs to be replaced.
Shandro could follow the example of other politicians of all political stripes who have dealt with similar commentary with more grace, among them Martin, former Parti Québécois leader Pierre Karl Péladeau, and federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau. Former Alberta premier Rachel Notley frequently endured similar commentary because her husband worked for a public sector union.
UCP supporters need to remember this too. When they next publish similar memes about Morneau's business dealings, for example, they can expect to have Shandro's name thrown back at them. Shandro is well on his way to becoming a serious liability to his party.
David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
Image: Premier of Alberta/Flickr
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