Opinion: It’s relevant to ask about conflicts of interest when so many cabinet ministers and MPs make serious money through their real estate investments.

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Having so many Canadian politicians invested in real estate is a problem.

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In the midst of an affordability crisis that has hit Canada harder than almost any other country, the public should be worried that an unusually high proportion of its politicians are landlords.

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While it isn’t inherently wrong to invest in real estate, it’s a worry that one-of-three Ottawa cabinet ministers — the people making absolutely crucial decisions impacting the cost of owning and renting — bring in significant personal wealth from housing.

This column will look at whether MPs are in conflict of interest when they vote on laws affecting houses and rent prices. It also digs into whether the House of Commons lacks cabinet ministers and MPs who represent the millions of Canadians struggling to enter the housing market or to just find a modest place to rent.

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In addition to the real estate holdings of Liberal cabinet ministers — notably including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Housing Minister Ahmed Hussen and cabinet ministers David Lametti and Francois-Philippe Champagne — 38 per cent of the MPs in all parties are real estate financiers or landlords.

Last year, 62 Liberal MPs received money from investment properties in some form or other, as did 54 Conservative MPs (including leader Pierre Poilievre); six Bloc Quebecois MPs; four NDP MPs (not including leader Jagmeet Singh); and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

Having a landlord political class isn’t just a federal phenomenon. It’s also highly prevalent at the provincial and municipal level. For example, in addition to more than nine-of-10 BC MLAs owning their own homes, more than half of them have a secondary property or more.

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Roughly speaking, Canada’s federal and provincial politicians are investing, if not speculating, in property at more than double the rate of everyone else.

It’s dismaying to realize Metro Vancouver and Toronto are dominated by Liberal MPs deeply involved in real estate: These two cities are ranked among the most unaffordable in the world.

Davide Mastracci of Passage has been a leader among journalists providing direct evidence, based on MPs’ official wealth-disclosure forms, that more than 20 Liberal MPs in Greater Toronto invest in property. That’s also the case for at least nine Liberal MPs in Metro Vancouver.

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Taking Liberal MPs from the Vancouver region as a sample group, we discovered, in addition to owning their homes, Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray (Quadra) co-owns vacant land and a rental property and has shares in three Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITS) ; Development Minister Harjit Sajjan (Vancouver South) has an investment property at Whistler; developer Sukh Dhaliwal (Surrey-Newton) has 11 numbered real estate companies; Taleeb Noormohamed (Vancouver-Granville), who was in the news for flipping 21 properties, has rental dwellings and shares in Airbnb Inc.; Randeep Sarai (Surrey-Centre) owns at least five rental properties and has two numbered real estate companies; Terry Beech (Burnaby-North Seymour) has a rental property; John Aldag (Cloverdale-Langley City) owns a rental property; Ron McKinnon (Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam) co-owns a rental property, and Wilson Miao (Richmond Centre) earns income from a realty company.

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Liberal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray (Quadra) co-owns vacant land, a rental property and has shares in Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITS).
Liberal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray (Quadra) co-owns vacant land, a rental property and has shares in Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITS). Photo by RICHARD LAM /PNGs

Virtually all politicians paint themselves as champions of affordable housing. But since Liberal cabinet ministers hold the seat of power, it’s most relevant to ask whether the many invested in real estate are in conflict of interest when they shape decisions that directly or indirectly impact housing costs and rents.

Those decisions include governing laws such as mortgage incentive programs, property-related taxes, foreign buyers, empty homes, social housing, rent controls, and immigration and international student levels.

Michael McDonald, former head of the University of BC’s Center for Applied Ethics, says it’s more than valid to question the motivations of cabinet ministers and MPs who earn money through real estate, especially those with multiple properties.

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“I see potentially serious conflict of interest issues that deserve publicity, and in more extreme cases (politicians) recusing themselves from influencing or making decisions” that affect house prices and renting, said McDonald, who served on the conflict of interest committee of BC’s Provincial Health Services Authority.

That said, McDonald’s stresses can be complicated to determine when a public-policy-maker is in a conflict of interest. While there should be especially intense onus on MPs for whom real estate is their main business to avoid conflicts, McDonald suggested guilt or innocence needs to be determined case-by-case.

The other fundamental question, McDonald said, centers on representation, on whether would-be homeowners and renters have enough people in Ottawa, in provincial capitals or at city halls to truly represent their interests.

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Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal (Surrey-Newton) is a developer involved in almost a dozen numbered real-estate companies.
Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal (Surrey-Newton) is a developer involved in almost a dozen numbered real-estate companies. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /PNGs

Just as disabled people, women and Indigenous citizens need to feel they’re not politically marginalized, so also do “the unhoused and the marginally unhoused,” said McDonald.

“Do we have enough people who really understand what it’s like to be desperately trying to get a rental in Vancouver while competing with 10 others for the same place?” In Vancouver and Burnaby, for example, an average one-bedroom unit goes for a gut-churning $2,600 a month.

But most MPs, MLAs and mayors don’t rent; they own their homes and often much more property. The applied ethicist supports shining the spotlight on politicians’ real estate, while urging them to support housing rules that could go against their financial self-interest.

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That would not only be a vote-getter, McDonald said, it would also be wise.

“Maybe it’s a lot to ask, but they would do it for the benefit of the common good.”

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