Monday, January 27, 2014

Being a good guy doesn’t excuse Chuck Strahl’s lack of judgment

I don’t know Chuck Strahl, but I've always thought he seemed like a pretty good guy, all in all. He certainly has won many friends on all sides of the political fence and in the pundit class, and they were quick to shower him with praise last week when he resigned as head of the federal body that oversees Canada’s spy agency. 

They weren’t acting as real friends, though, because real friends tell each other the truth, and there was nothing remotely “ethical” or resembling “the right thing” in the way Strahl handled himself in this affair.

Strahl, a former Conservative MP and cabinet minister, was appointed as Canada’s spy watchdog in 2012 by Stephen Harper. He was seen as a safe and popular choice to replace the last Conservative appointee, Arthur Porter, who left marred in scandal and intrigue. As the National Post noted of Strahl at the time, “The good news is Mr. Strahl comes free of scandal.”

And Strahl pledged to keep his nose clean, saying at the time he was aware of the potential for conflict of interest between his duties as CSIS watchdog and his post-politics consulting business.

But he’s got a system of “double make-sure” to protect himself and the public from conflicts of interest and questions around ethics. He’ll continue to build his consultancy, helping companies create and execute business strategies, but he “won’t lobby” governments. He said he never has.

Within a year though, won’t lobby governments became will register to lobby governments. A report in the Vancouver Observer revealed Strahl had registered to lobby B.C.’s Minister of Natural Gas Development on behalf of a new consulting client, Enbridge. Strahl didn’t seem to see any conflict between lobbying on behalf of Enbridge and his CSIS watchdog role when he took on the client, or when he was asked about it by the Observer.

“I do some contract work for Enbridge,” Strahl told the Vancouver Observer. “I’ve registered just in case I arrange a meeting, but no meetings to report”.

Besides marking a complete reversal of the “won’t lobby” promise, the conflict is also fairly obvious. Reports have already indicated CSIS involvement in monitoring opposition to the Enbridge Northern Gateway project. The links between Canada’s intelligence agencies and commercial interests were further revealed last fall, when it was revealed that Communications Security Establishment Canada was targeting communications of Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy, for the benefit of Canadian energy companies.

It should seem plainly obvious that Strahl can't work for business interests on the one hand, and on the other hand impartially judge the actions of CSIS when those actions could include activities that aim to benefit some of those same business interests.

It should have been obvious to Strahl when he took the job as watchdog.

It should have been obvious to Strahl when he took on Enbridge as a client.

It should have been obvious to Strahl when he registered to lobby the BC government.

It should have been obvious to Strahl when he was questioned by the Vancouver Observer.

It should have been obvious to Strahl when this broke as a national story.

Yet it apparently wasn’t obvious to Strahl until Jan. 24, when he submitted his resignation to the Prime Minister as chair of the security intelligence review committee.

And, frankly, it may not have been obvious to him even then. The text of the letter makes clear he’s resigning because you annoying people are making an issue out of this and it’s become annoying for him and the government, not because he belatedly realizes he has done anything wrong.

… at all times I have been fully compliant with all rules and regulations…
…despite the fact that my compliance with all the relevant rules and regulations has been clearly demonstrated…
...(I) do not wish to be in the centre of the political gray…
…with regret…I have concluded it is best for all concerned that I step down…

This resignation was released late on a Friday afternoon, where governments dump bad news they want to downplay. The Friday before the return of the House of Commons, where this was sure to be an issue for the opposition. And it came nearly two months after he registered as a lobbyist, and weeks after the story first broke.

This is no case, as some have tried to spin it, as a man doing the ethical thing, of having to make a choice, and making it. The time to do the ethical thing was nearly two months ago, when he decided to take on Enbridge as a client. Ethics, after all, is how you act when no one is looking.

Perhaps partial points if he’d made a choice almost one month ago, when the story broke. Or even weeks ago, when it went national. But you don’t get ethical credit for trying to ride out the storm and, when that fails, sending out a late Friday resignation that takes no responsibility for your actions. Not even a little.

The best that can be said is that he was a good soldier, exiting the stage to save his party and his Prime Minister further political embarrassment. Why, compared to Mike Duffy, he's almost a saint.

Strahl may well be a great guy, and I wish him well in his future endevours. But his “friends” owe him better than they’ve given.

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