Robyn Benson, PSAC

Conflicts and interests

Water defence.jpg

One seldom sees double standards as blatant as the free pass given to former Conservative cabinet minister Chuck Strahl to chair the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), and a new National Energy Board assignment: to take over key environmental responsibilities from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Public workers know what conflict of interest is. It’s almost bred in the bone. But in case anyone has forgotten, there’s a Treasury Board policy on the matter, a very strict one, which includes apparent conflicts of interest as well as actual ones. Here’s the definition, for anyone who needs to brush up:

Conflict of Interest (COI): a situation in which the public servant has private interests that could improperly influence the performance of his or her official duties and responsibilities or in which the public servant uses his or her office for personal gain. A real conflict of interest exists at the present time, an apparent conflict of interest could be perceived by a reasonable observer to exist, whether or not it is the case, and a potential conflict of interest could reasonably be foreseen to exist in the future.

On top of that policy, which leaves precious little wiggle-room, the Conservative powers that be have imposed at least one extreme Code of Conduct, upon librarians at Library and Archives Canada. This Code deems their professional activities outside the office “high risk,” regulates their personal lives as well, and encourages employees to snitch on each other. The Code also demands loyalty, not to Canada, but to the Conservative government.

Such touching concern for the integrity of its workforce! Not a single opportunity for a conflict of interest will be permitted to arise, even if almost every aspect of an employee’s life has to be micromanaged to ensure it.

So in the office, it’s 1984. But at the political level? Quite a different standard comes into play.

Chuck Strahl, a Conservative loyalist who has, since leaving the government, headed up a right-wing think tank, was appointed to chair SIRC in 2012. He has now registered as a lobbyist for Enbridge. The problem here is that, as SIRC chair, Strahl has access to highly classified information from CSIS—which, along with the RCMP and the National Energy Board, has been working closely with Enbridge and other oil companies to monitor environmental groups opposed to the development of the Alberta tar sands.

Strahl’s ability to play a neutral oversight role as SIRC chair, therefore, presents difficulties. In the words of Lorne Sossin, the Dean of Osgoode Law School, “There seems to me to be an inherent challenge in having a lobbyist serve in such a capacity….The standard for impartiality at law is one of perception and I think a reasonable person could certainly see a conflict in this context.”

But the parliamentary Ethics Commissioner, Mary Dawson, sees no problem with this. In fact she sees no problem with very much, having routinely absolved government ministers, staff and MPs of any breaches of the House of Commons’s Conflict of Interest Code during her tenure. In one notorious case, she gave the green light to Conservative MPs to vote to abolish the Canada Wheat Board even when they stood to gain financially from its disappearance.

As the Chair of a supposedly apolitical oversight agency, Strahl’s involvements have already come under scrutiny. His lobbying on behalf of Enbridge adds more fuel to the fire. We have more questions here than answers, certainly, but a much laxer standard is clearly being applied to Strahl—indeed, to half of the SIRC board—than, say, to a librarian at LAC.

What of government agencies themselves? The National Energy Board, which just approved the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline, has now been given new responsibilities—to assess whether a pipeline might harm fish and their habitats. To any reasonable person, this must smack somewhat of foxes regulating hen-houses. Again, a lower standard regarding conflict of interest is being applied—or, possibly, no standard at all.

All the lines here converge on the development of the Alberta tar sands and the interests of Big Oil. Nothing, it seems, will be allowed to get in the way of that, neither ethical principles of governance nor public concern. It’s cold comfort indeed to note that, in this particular respect at least, any conflict of interest is fast on its way to being eliminated altogether.

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on January 17, 2014 9:44 AM.

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