Former Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl is facing questions over a possible conflict of interest after the Vancouver Observer revealed that he’s been hired by Enbridge to help them sell the provincial BC government on the merits of the Northern Gateway pipeline project.
On Monday, ForestEthics Advocacy issued a statement calling on Strahl to step down from his current gig as chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the five-person board charged with keeping an eye on Canada’s top secret spy agency.
“In late 2013 it emerged that the Harper government had used CSIS and the RCMP to spy on critics of oil pipeline projects, including the Sierra Club, the Council of Canadians and Idle No More,” the release noted. .
“ForestEthics Advocacy and its supporters were among those Canadians targeted for surveillance. Given these events, and Strahl’s close ties to both his former colleagues in Ottawa and Canada’s spy agency, his registration to lobby for Enbridge is–at best–a conflict of interest. ”
Later that day, New Democrat natural resources critic and BC MP Nathan Cullen put out a release claiming that Strahl had been “caught” lobbying for the company.
Cullen acknowledges that, as a former minister, Strahl is currently barred from lobbying the federal government under the cooling-off provisions put in place by the Conservatives in 2006, but warns that “vague guidelines” could allow him to “skirt the rules and lobby the province. even on a federal pipeline issue.”
But under current federal ethics rules, the SIRC chairmanship is considered a part-time appointment, which exempts Strahl from many of the specific restrictions imposed by the Conflict of Interest Act.
Unlike a full-time reporting public office holder, Strahl is no longer obliged to disclose his outside activities to the ethics commissioner, or provide the same sort of public declaration of assets, liabilities and other income that he had to file during his tenure in cabinet.
He is, however, still subject to the five-year ban on lobbying the federal government, as well as the general provisions of the Conflict of Interest Act that apply to all public office holders, which forbid him from using his current position, or information that isn’t available to the general public, to influence any decision that could further private interests.
That doesn’t mean he can’t work for Enbridge — or, indeed, lobby the province on its behalf. He just can’t exploit inside information, or his part-time gig at SIRC, while doing so.
Still, given the political sensitivities surrounding both the pipeline file and the conduct of Canada’s domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, it seems unlikely that the controversy over his dual roles will be put to rest simply by pointing out that he’s following the rules.
This was, after all, the government that came to power vowing to block the so-called ‘revolving door’ between politics and private sector advocacy.
Given that, it’s fair to ask whether it makes sense to treat a highly sensitive post like the SIRC chairmanship as just another part-time job.