That was then. This is now.

Monday, March 8, 2004

  • Ontario Finance Minister Greg Sorbara

    Ontario Finance Minister Greg Sorbara

Written by Scott Piatkowski

Our political leaders often amaze with their unrivalled ability to practice “situational ethics”. They display one ethical standard while in opposition, and then completely abandon that standard as soon as they achieve power. By way of example, let us look at the case of Ontario Finance Minister Greg Sorbara.

Sorbara is on the hot seat for waiting over two months to disclose the fact that Royal Group Technologies, a company on whose Board of Directors he served for the ten years before being sworn in as a minister, was under investigation by both the police and the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC). The fact that, as Minister of Finance, he was responsible for overseeing the very body conducting the investigation into alleged financial irregularities at Royal did not appear to trouble him until the investigation became public.

On February 26, Sorbara declared that “while the OSC's investigation is being conducted I've asked the premier to assign another minister responsibility for the OSC.” This decision was endorsed in a letter to Sorbara by Integrity Commissioner Coulter Osborne, but the letter merely raised more questions. Why didn’t he ask for this reassignment of responsibilities as soon as he became aware of the investigation. Clearly something that is a conflict of interest on February 26 was just as real a conflict of interest on December 22.

Premier Dalton McGuinty vigorously defended Sorbara’s decision to stop short of a resignation, “He is not the subject of an investigation,” the Premier told a news conference. “And the commitment he has made to me and to the Ontario public is that, should he become the subject of an investigation, then he will step aside from his ministerial responsibilities.” It’s not clear what would have to happen for McGuinty to consider Sorbara part of the investigation. For ten years (ending October 2003), he sat on the company’s Board of Directors. For at least eight years he sat on its Audit Committee, overseeing the very transactions that are now the subject of an investigation.

McGuinty also justified Sorbara’s delay in disclosing the investigation and giving up responsibility for the OSC. “My understanding is there is an Ontario securities regulation which prohibits him from disclosing information to anybody until it has been disclosed by the company itself,” McGuinty said. But, it turns out there is no such rule. “We know of no impediment in the securities laws that would have stopped the minister from going to the premier, let's say, or the integrity commissioner,” said OSC spokeswoman Wendy Dey.

So why would Sorbara sit on this kind of explosive information for two months, while continuing to supervise the workings of the Securities Commission. Surely the decision to keep quiet couldn’t be related to the fact that both Sorbara and his wife continue to hold shares in Royal Group. After the investigation was disclosed, those shares dropped 19.5 per cent to $13.98 on the Toronto Stock Exchange, following a day-long trading halt on Wednesday. Still Sorbara continues to insist that “in every single step on this matter, I've done the right thing. It would be foolish of me to consider stepping down, and secondly, it would damage the way our political system works.”

But, last summer, Sorbara had a much different understanding of how the political system should work. Then, he thought that Conservative Agriculture Minister Helen Johns should resign over problems with the meat inspection system that resulted in potentially hazardous meat being sold throughout the province. According to Sorbara, the key issue was “why it took months before the public was alerted” – which seems to be precisely the issue in the current scandal. He was absolutely right to demand her resignation then; he should be demanding his own resignation now.

Way back in 1991, Greg Sorbara had an even harsher view of what constituted a conflict of interest and the importance of cabinet resignations. After two NDP ministers (Shelley Martel and Anne Swarbrick) admitted writing letters on behalf of constituents who had made complaints to the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Sorbara would settle for nothing less than their heads on a platter. He railed about the issue at a Queen’s Park committee hearing: “The Premier said it was okay and he was not going to accept the resignations of the ministers, because after all, what they did not further their private interests. They did not profit from it. Well, heavens, if we now need clear evidence of personal profit before a minister steps down, having tried to interfere with the administration of justice, we have really gone downhill in Ontario.” Yes, Greg, we really have gone downhill in Ontario. Congratulations for your part in that.

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