A Liberal MP has been barred from asking questions on the Mulroney-Schreiber affair in Parliament, raising fears that a libel chill is set to extend into the House and committee rooms on the Hill.What's worse is that the Cons have already been less than shy about using SLAPPs to distract or shut down opposition - even when there was no direct consequence to continuing a line of questioning after such a claim had been filed. Now, Dawson's decision raises the prospect that any future lawsuit can force opposition MPs to keep quiet under penalty of punishment by the Ethics Commissioner even if the claim itself is frivolous.
Up until this week, Liberal MP Robert Thibault had been one of the opposition party's main questioners on the cash dealings between former prime minister Brian Mulroney and businessman Karlheinz Schreiber.
However, Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson has barred Mr. Thibault from raising the issue further in Parliament because Mr. Mulroney has launched a $2-million lawsuit against Mr. Thibault for allegedly libellous statements on CTV Newsnet on the matter.
Ms. Dawson ruled that according to the conflict-of-interest code, Mr. Thibault now has a "private interest" in the controversy and he cannot debate or vote on issues related to it.
In the absence of the lawsuit, Mr. Thibault could have continued to say anything on the matter in Parliament, given that parliamentary privilege protects MPs from being sued for what they say in the House or at committee.
However, the Ethics Commissioner said the conflict-of-interest code, as it stands, clearly affects Mr. Thibault's rights as an MP.
She found that Mr. Thibault was wrong to participate in the ethics committee's probe of the Mulroney-Schreiber dealings, including asking questions directly to Mr. Mulroney last December. Mr. Mulroney announced his intention to sue last November and filed the suit in January.
"I am of the view that lawsuits claiming damages that have been instituted against an individual constitute a liability," Ms. Dawson's ruling said.
"His participation in the work of the Committee could reasonably be seen to be potentially influenced by his private interest, thus interfering with his public duties and functions and clearly creating a situation of real or apparent conflict of interest," she said.
It remains to be seen whether the opposition responds by looking to amend the ethics code to avoid the problem. But that itself would seem problematic in giving the Cons an opening both to slam the opposition for limiting the definition of a conflict of interest, and to justify far more serious conflicts of their own. Which means that opposition MPs will face a tough choice whether to take a needed public stand to preserve their ability to properly hold the government accountable - or accept the risk that the Cons will render that even more difficult in the future.