Wednesday, 15 October 2014

When all else fails, accuse someone of a conflict of interest

Gary Mason offers a forceful critique of the BC Liberals' handing of the South Okanagan Park in today's Globe and Mail.
But his analysis contains an important flaw.  He accuses someone of a conflict of interest without stating any  plausible grounds for such an accusation.  The error is in these paragraphs:
My sense is there is zero appetite in Victoria to do anything about the new demands for a national park. In fact, the government recently illustrated its disdain for those advocating for the park by naming one of its most vocal detractors, Greg Norton, to the Agricultural Land Commission’s Okanagan Region panel.
If this isn’t a conflict of interest, I don’t know what is. I can just imagine the howls from some ranchers in the area had a park advocate been named to the same panel. It wouldn’t be allowed to stand, and neither should Mr. Norton’s appointment. There are parcels of the proposed park that are in the Agricultural Land Reserve; the ALR and its area commissioners would obviously have a say in the fate of those lands.
It’s inconceivable that the government didn’t know of Mr. Norton’s virulent opposition to the park at the time of his appointment. He has been the face and voice of the “Grasslands Coalition” that has actively fought against it. If the people of the South Okanagan needed any more proof of where the Liberal’s stand on Parks Canada’s proposal, they have it now.
 I'm tempted to say that whenever someone makes the statement "If this isn't a conflict of interest, I don't know what is," we should all put on our skeptic specs.  Nothing in Mr. Mason's analysis even begins to make a case for conflict of interest.

Being strongly opposed to something does not create a conflict of interest.  Holding strong views on an issue which you are then given responsibility over by appointment to a tribunal does not create a conflict of interest.  It may, if certain other circumstances are present, be the start of a complaint about bias.  But that's not Mr. Mason's complaint.

A conflict of interest exists when there is a conflict between a private interest and a public duty, such that your ability to discharge your public duty may be tainted by your private interest.  "Private interest" in this context is not the same as "holding an opinion".  A conflict would arise if Mr. Norton owed his livelihood to his opposition to the park proposal and then was given a quasi-judicial or political role in respect of the park status.  A judge who owns shares in a company should not decide a case involving that company.  A politician who owes money to a constituent should not advocate for that constituent.  No such facts are alleged in Mr. Mason's article.   All that we know is that Mr. Norton has strong views about the park.  That's not enough.

(To be clear, I don't know Mr. Norton, and have no strong opinion on the proposed park.)

Mr. Mason may not like Mr. Norton's appointment.   But I think does his own argument a disservice by making an accusation that has no substance.

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