When interests conflict
“Conflict of interest” is a phrase all of you have heard many, many times.
That’s no surprise. We live in a small territory made up of many small communities, in which almost everyone is connected to everyone else by blood, family, naming and friendship.
As well, many people are also connected to each another through numerous business and political relationships.
Because of that, most people who hold official positions from elected jobs in the territorial legislature or municipal councils to appointed jobs on committees, boards or other agencies will inevitably find themselves in conflicts of interest.
These are situations where public officials must make decisions affecting their own businesses and property or people with whom they have certain relationships.
In our part of the world, there’s absolutely nothing wrong about being in a conflict of interest. In northern Canada, it’s impossible to serve your community and not find yourself in a conflict of interest at least once in a while.
It’s what you do about it that matters. Conflict of interest is, above all else, a matter of ethics and morals.
That means every conflict of interest presents a moral choice a choice between doing the right thing, which is to protect the public interest, or the wrong thing, which is to take advantage of the situation for the sake of personal gain.
For us, the only essential issue we should worry about when a person appears to be in a conflict of interest is whether or not that person has made the right ethical choice.
Justice Virginia Schuler of the NWT Supreme Court made that clear in her recent ruling on a conflict of interest complaint involving Iqaluit Town Councillor Brian Hellwig.
In performing his public duties, Hellwig fell into a situation where a matter directly affecting a business he owns came before Town Council. Hellwig, the court found, did not declare his conflict.
And that, the court said was the wrong choice.
That means that the first ethical responsibility of all those who find themselves in a conflict of interest is to openly, honestly and publicly admit their conflict. After that, their second ethical responsibility is to remove themselves from any decision-making that affect their private interests.
So far, so good.
So why do we still have so much trouble with the concept?
One reason, perhaps, is that in northern Canada, there isn’t much interest in matters of political morality and public accountability.
In the past, northerners have routinely let their politicians get away with stuff they’d go to jail for in many other parts of the world. And we still let our governments get away with policies and practices that would be considered unacceptable and unethical everywhere else in the country.
For example, the GNWT’s refusal to make public the terms of secret negotiated contracts would not be tolerated anywhere else in Canada. That’s because the public’s right to know the details of public spending is normally, and rightly, considered to be a sacred moral principle.
Second, a lot of people in northern Canada can’t seem to tell the difference between public and private interests.
For example, the private interests of those who hold shares in private community development corporations is often equated with the public interest even though there are rarely any grounds for doing so.
GNWT policy over the past decade has reinforced that confusion. In fact, some MLAs will tell you in private that they’re considered to be traitors if they ask simple public questions about who really benefits from public spending on certain contracts and why.
Third, many people have trouble in distinguishing between real conflicts of interest and other, more benign situations in which public officials find themselves in positions of divided loyalty.
As a result, conflict of interest accusations are often flung at people simply because it vaguely looks as if they might be in a conflict especially high profile people who innocently hold positions on more than one board or committee and who clearly have nothing personal to gain from any of those positions.
But, as we’ve said, conflict of interest is about ethics it’s not a weapon to be used to smear or blackmail your political enemies.
And if it’s about ethics, then that means it’s also about the truth and clear rational thinking about the truth.
Until we find more of that respect for honesty and reason in our leaders, and develop more of it in ourselves, we’ll continue to be confused about conflict of interest.