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Chuck Strahl's lobbying activities break no laws, but highlight a problem

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Notwithstanding his classification as a Designated Public Office Holder under the federal Lobbying Act, former Reform Party, Canadian Alliance and Conservative office holder Chuck Strahl is breaking no laws or regulations by registering and operating as a lobbyist in British Columbia.

Something is wrong with this picture if you accept the rationale for most Canadian lobbying legislation, but you can hardly blame Strahl for it unless you're one of those folks who thinks citizens should meet the spirit of a law, not merely its letter.

You know, like the federal Conservatives who in 2008 promoted the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct, which states: "Lobbyists should conform fully with not only the letter but the spirit of the Lobbyists''Code of Conduct as well as all the relevant laws, including the Lobbying Act and its regulations."

The Lobbying Act defines a Designated Public Office Holder as a key government decision maker, including members of cabinet, and imposes a five-year prohibition on such persons becoming lobbyists after leaving office.

Strahl retired as a Conservative MP from British Columbia’s Fraser Valley in 2011 after a long career in which he held many important cabinet posts and served as Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons. He was minister of transport until May 2011, so he definitely qualifies for the designation.

However, the Lobbying Act does not prevent Designated Public Office Holders from lobbying governments other than Canada's federal government, including the government of the province in which they reside and which they served as a federal office holder. The federal act is silent on this subject.

Likewise, British Columbia's lobbying legislation, the Lobbyists Registration Act, does not contain such a requirement -- or, indeed, any statutory limits on what former office holders can do.

Here in Alberta, the Conflicts of Interest Act puts some modest restrictions on the activities of former ministers, limited to Alberta, for a period of 12 months.

Strahl's B.C. lobbying gig has become particularly controversial because of his multiple roles as chair of the board of the overtly partisan Manning Centre, chair of the important and sensitive federal Security Intelligence Review Committee and most recently as a lobbyist registered in B.C. for pipeline-builder Enbridge Inc.

As has been argued in this space before, this is completely inappropriate.

Practical conflicts exist between Strahl's role on SIRC and each of his separate roles with the Manning Centre and Enbridge. The Enbridge link in particular creates problems because there are real national security issues surrounding oil pipelines, not to mention the tendency of both pipeline advocates and the Harper Government to conflate legitimate democratic opposition to petroleum development with sedition and terrorism.

Moreover, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is monitored by SIRC, and CSIS has been charged by the Harper Government with keeping an eye on pipeline threats and opponents. It is hard not to conclude this brief includes legitimate and law-abiding opponents as well as potential terrorists.

In the past few days, the problem with Strahl's clearly inappropriate double role has come to be recognized widely. Last Friday, the Toronto Star editorialized: "Strahl can protect the integrity of SIRC and public confidence in the pipeline review process by choosing between his intelligence work and his energy lobbying. He should do that without delay." (Emphasis added.)

My guess is he will do so. Notwithstanding his purported need to continue making money, he is a loyal Harper Conservative and this issue is getting to the point where it surely causing some political pain to Prime Minister Stephen Harper as we begin the countdown to a federal election next year.

So despite Strahl's brisk defence of his actions -- characterized by some as hiding behind the conclusions of the federal Ethics Commissioner, who correctly found he had broken no laws or rules -- it is said here he will quit his role with SIRC soon.

But this brings us back to the issue of the appropriateness of this kind of lobbying, regardless of its clear legality at the moment.

The most commonly heard rationale for legislating cooling-off periods for influential politicians like Strahl who wish to become lobbyists is that having recently been in a key government position gives a politician-turned-lobbyist and his clients a particular advantage, increasing public distrust of an already suspect activity that the government deems nevertheless to be democratically necessary and constitutionally protected.

"Certain former public office holders, at least for a time, can have more 'insider knowledge' and influence over former colleagues than lobbyists who did not formerly work as public office holders in similar positions," wrote B.C. Registrar of Lobbyists Elizabeth Denham in a report recommending changes to that province's lobbying regulations. "This possibility of greater advantage is the rationale for restricting certain former public office holders from certain lobbying activities for a period after they leave."

Such regulations also aim to reduce the velocity of the insiders' revolving door that exists in all democracies between governments and the lobbying industry, and to discourage politicians from making decisions while in office that can be repaid by big lobbying contracts after retirement.

It's obvious that the special advantage enjoyed by recently departed senior federal officials is not restricted to the federal government.

As Enbridge spokesman Ivan Giesbrecht told the National Post: "We retained Chuck because he is a respected British Columbian with a deep knowledge of this province and the issues that are important to the people who live here. It is normal that regular conversations take place between Northern Gateway and governments."

In other words, Strahl knows people in the British Columbia government thanks to his recent federal role -- perhaps like the premier to whose campaign not so long ago he lent his federal prestige.

Boiled down in the words of the federal Lobbyists' Code, the principal justification for lobbying legislation and regulation is "promoting public trust in the integrity of government decision-making."

Strahl's recent venture into pipeline lobbying does little to achieve that goal, even though the conflict of his lobbying with his role on SIRC remains a far more serious problem.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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