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Ethics Commissioner shrugs off conflict of interest in spy watchdog's Enbridge lobbying

Manning Centre and Ethics Commissioner defend Strahl in exchanges today with The Vancouver Observer.

CBC photo of Mary Dawson

Conservative-appointed ethics commissioner Mary Dawson dismissed questions around conflict of interest in federal spy watchdog Chuck Strahl's paid lobbying for oil and energy companies.

"Mr. Strahl has contacted our Office on a number of occasions, including Monday of this week," Ethics Commissioner spokesperson Margot Booth said. She said the office advised Strahl that "the Office had no grounds to believe that there had been a contravention of the (Conflict of Interest) Act."

On Saturday, the Vancouver Observer found that Strahl, who is chair of the independent and non-partisan Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), registered as a lobbyist for the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. Strahl is also lobbying for an Albertan energy company that was probed by Canada's security for its financial ties to a Chinese firm.

"There is a definite conflict," Duff Conacher, a board member of the nonpartisan citizens group Democracy Watch, said. "The fact that Strahl is on a federal committee and he is interacting with cabinet, all intertwined with a federal government agenda on pipelines is wrong.” He called the ethics commissioner "useless".

Federal NDP House leader Nathan Cullen said the party was considering filing a complaint to the ethics commissioner as well as provincial ethics commissioners for Strahl's work. 

“It smells terrible," Cullen said. "I don’t know how they can possibly justify it.”

Despite taking on major conflict of interest cases including the Senate scandal, Dawson has reportedly absolved many Conservative politicians accused of conflict of interest in the past. In addition to clearing Tory MP David Anderson last October of attempting to influence the CRTC, she also cleared Conservative MP Rick Dykstra of ethical violations after he used the owner's suite of the Rogers Centre for a fundraising event in 2010. 

"Yellow caution signs and no police"

Mary Elizabeth Dawson has been Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner of Canada since 2007. She was appointed under the Parliament of Canada Act on July 9, 2007 as the Conflict of Interest Act came into force. She has been involved in high-profile constitutional cases including the Meech Lake Accord and same-sex marriage. 

She came under fire in a December 2010 article in the Globe and Mail  titled, "Tory appointed watchdogs reluctant to prove wrongdoing, critics charge."  The article said that...

And, in more than three years as Ethics Commissioner, Mary Dawson has discovered just one person, a Liberal MP, to have violated the Conflict of Interest Code. At the same time, she has absolved cabinet ministers, Conservative staff, a Conservative MP and the government itself of myriad alleged indiscretions.

"If they don't want to find fault, if they want to remain on good terms with deputy ministers in the town, perhaps expecting another appointment or something, well, they can just slow [it]down and there is nobody to say, 'What are you doing?'" said Donald Savoie, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the Université de Moncton.

"I think trying to hold Officers of Parliament accountable is like trying to grab smoke."


Dawson was also responsible for investigating the ethics breach involving former Prime Minister chief of staff Nigel Wright regarding the payment of $90,000 to disgraced senator Mike Duffy. Dawson had previously investigated and cleared Wright of allegations that he had he'd used his influential position to further private interests of friends at Barrick Gold Corp. Then in June 2013, she announced that she would 'suspend' her ongoing probe of Wright in order to make way for an RCMP investigation of the Senate scandal. 

"Dawson has testified that these guys are honorable and that we should trust them. No system in the world operates on 100 per cent trust," Conacher told the Vancouver Observer earlier this week. 

"We don’t have stop signs only. We have police to enforce. Instead, when it comes to lobbying and ethics, we have a bunch of yellow caution signs everywhere and no police."

"Excellent judgment" in avoiding conflict of interest

The conservative Manning Centre defended Strahl and his ability to act without being influenced by his political affiliations. 

"Chuck has been an outstanding representative of BC, cabinet minister, and has always shown excellent judgement in both avoiding conflicts of interests – and also, I might add, in reconciling conflicting interests," Manning Centre spokesman Olivier Ballou said.

Asked about specific cases in which Strahl reconciled conflicting interests, Ballou said it was evident in his work as MP. 

"From his own career as a cabinet minister. He's a natural facilitator. He's had a pretty spotless career as MP, and a cabinet minister. No major scandals or anything."

He said Strahl doesn't receive any money for his work as director at the Manning Centre which involves "up to six" annual meetings. Although Strahl was criticized in April 2013 for holding the director position with the Manning Centre while also heading the Security Intelligence Review Council (SIRC), Ballou repeated that he saw no conflict of interest.

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