Photo: flickr/ Michael Ignatieff

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The Dan Gagnier affair is not merely a matter of one person’s lack of judgment.

It undermines Justin Trudeau’s narrative that his party is no longer the instrument of the lobbyists and special interests groups that exerted such huge influence in the days when the Liberals were the so-called natural governing party.

In light of the Gagnier revelations, voters now have a right to wonder who would determine the course of a Trudeau-led government.

Would it be Trudeau himself and his elected MPs?

Or would it be a gaggle of backroom folks who cut their teeth in the lobbying world, and who see Trudeau as an instrument to power, but do not share his democratic reformist or social justice goals — however inconsistent and imperfect those goals may be?

Gagnier was paid to advise TransCanada while working with Trudeau

For those who missed all or part of this story, which was partly drowned out by the Blue Jays and Stephen Harper’s dances with the Ford brothers, here are the main facts.

Dan Gagnier was, until a few days ago, co-chair of the Liberal campaign. He travelled frequently with the leader and was a key player in planning Trudeau’s strategy.

Gagnier is a person with long experience in politics and industry. He is a one-time senior Quebec, federal and Ontario pubic official and former senior corporate executive, who now has a lucrative and successful career as — to use the common euphemism — a consultant.

In fact, Gagnier is a lobbyist, a professional who is paid handsomely to advance the business interests of his clients.

Lobbyists got their name in the days when they, literally, sat in the lobbies of politicians’ offices and buttonholed them on the way out, pleading the causes of their clients.

These days, it is the politicians who are more likely to trek, cap-in-hand, to lobbyists’ plush offices that look down on Parliament from the gleaming office towers of downtown Ottawa.

One of Gagnier’s clients is TransCanada Pipeline.

That mega corporation wants to build a pipeline, dubbed Energy East, to carry Alberta bitumen through Ontario and Quebec to an outlet on the Atlantic, either on the Gulf of the Saint Lawrence or on the East Coast.

Gagnier has been advising TransCanada as to how to get Ottawa and the provinces to agree to its mega-project. In fact, he was advising TransCanada at the same time as he was plotting Trudeau’s election strategy.

While wearing the hat of Liberal campaign co-chair, Gagnier sent an email to TransCanada executives counselling them on how to approach a new federal government, should we have one after Monday’s vote.

Trudeau’s rhetoric in Quebec clashed with Gagnier story

Energy East is a highly contentious project that worries many environmentalists and communities on its route, especially in Quebec.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair had been, at first, somewhat supportive of the Energy East, as an alternative to the Keystone XL project, which would carry raw tar sands bitumen to the U.S.

Mulcair reasoned that at least some of the bitumen carried by Energy East would be refined in Canada, while Keystone XL would, in effect, export 40,000 Canadian jobs southward.

More recently, Mulcair said he could not approve the Energy East project based on the inadequate environmental review the Harper government did.

Harper famously used one of his notorious omnibus budget bills to gut the federal government’s environmental oversight and review capacity. He called that act of political vandalism by stealth getting rid of “red tape.”

Earlier this week, while campaigning in Quebec, Trudeau took virtually the same position as Mulcair. And yet, almost at the same time as Trudeau was expressing scepticism about Energy East, we were learning that one of the most senior people on his campaign is being paid to lobby in favour of the TransCanada project.

When the Gagnier story broke, Trudeau and his team initially defended their campaign co-chair.

They said, incongruously, that the veteran lobbyist did not advise the leader on energy policy. He only worked to help get Liberals elected in Quebec.

The Liberals also said Gagnier had not done anything “illegal” as though to say: “If what you do is technically ‘legal’ it passes the ethical test.”

In a CTV interview, Trudeau said Gagnier had not “broken the rules.” What rules? Whose rules? The Liberal campaign’s rules?

By the next day, Trudeau had decided that what Gagnier did was “inappropriate.”

Gagnier’s connections were well-known and out in the open

In fact, the Liberal leader must have known from the outset that Gagnier was an oil industry mouthpiece.

As of a year ago, Gagnier headed the Energy Policy Institute of Canada (EPIC), an oil industry dominated body that advocates reducing what it calls “regulatory barriers” to development.

When Harper gutted the federal role in environmental protection, Gagnier’s EPIC cheered loudly.  

That happened around the same time as then Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver was accusing the Canadian environmental movement of wanting to turn Canada into a vast national park.

It is impossible that Trudeau and those close to him would not have known who Gagnier was, how he made his living and what he stood for when they brought him onboard.

It seems the reason they enlisted Gagnier’s help is because of his long history with the Liberal party, both federally and provincially, and because he would bring years of backroom experience to the campaign.

That’s why professional operators and lobbyists like him are so powerful in Ottawa. They know where the bodies are buried, and they are all about winning, unencumbered by such inconvenient handicaps as principle or moral scruples.

And despite all the Ottawa talk — going back to the Chrétien government, which created a Lobbyists’ Registry — about limiting the power of this self-interested group, lobbyists’ power and influence continues to grow.

You cannot turn on any of those political TV talk shows these days without seeing one of those tedious panels of so-called strategists.

Those “strategists” are, in fact, almost always industry lobbyists — bought, sold and paid for by their Big Business clients. There are times when such panels have had two lobbyist talking heads from the same firm, notionally representing different political parties.

We have written in this space in the past that Bruce Anderson, one of Peter Mansbridge’s regular At Issue panellists on CBC television’s The National, has made big money providing communications advice to tar sands companies.

Anderson regularly makes the disclaimer that his daughter works for the Liberal campaign and his brother for the Conservatives. He has never, however, volunteered to reveal his own profitable connections to the tar sands.

Lobbyists care only about about power and access to power 

The Gagnier episode shows that the political game, complete with its mainstream media cheerleaders and acolytes, is not really about the high-minded values and principles leaders spout on the campaign trail.

Politics is about getting and wielding power, and not much more.

That is why CBC and CTV call their daily political chat shows Power Play and Power and Politics.

Power is the key word in both cases. The broadcasters know it would be disingenuous to say of an Ottawa political program that it is about something so irrelevant as democracy or Parliament.

All of the political parties are connected to the lobbying world, including the NDP.

The NDP’s industry lobbyist connections are fairly weak, however, and balanced by the influence on the party of grassroots social movements, labour, First Nations groups and environmentalists.

The Conservatives and Liberals have deeper and more systemic ties to the world of lobbying.

In the case of the Conservatives, because the Harper government is such a one-man band and so ideologically driven, some lobbyists complain that it is hard to deal with. Big Oil does not, however, have a problem with Harper. In fact, Harper has invited that industry into the halls of power to write its own regulatory legislation.

But, in many ways, the lobbyists’ favourite party is the Liberal Party. Lobbyists like the chameleon-like nature of a party that will change its colours in a minute.

They find it easy to deal with a party of the so-called centre, whose chief ideology is a kind of light-on-principles pragmatism. (William James and John Dewey must do back flips in their graves each time the distinguished school of philosophy they founded is used to describe crass political opportunism).

As we have said in this space on a number of occasions, in the well-appointed offices of “government policy consulting” firms around Ottawa the mood these days is, as they say in New Orleans: “Laissez les bons temps rouler!”  Let the good times roll.

Many progressive voters have convinced themselves that Trudeau represents hope and change and fresh air. And, in any case, polls say he is the only one with a chance to defeat Harper, so, what the heck, anyone would be better than Harper, after all. Right?

Trudeau says he will reform Parliament, bring in a fairer electoral system, deal respectfully with First Nations, make the environment a priority and tax the rich.

That’s what progressive voters who are shifting to the Liberals think they will be voting for.

But that is not what attracts Gagnier and the many others like him to the Liberal campaign.

Gagnier and his colleagues see a party that promises to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on all kinds of infrastructure.

More important, the Liberals pledge to undertake that spending on what is called the P3 model: public, private partnerships — and here the key word is private.

In that promise, lobbyists see a potential bonanza for themselves, for their industry and for their clients.

Voters should think long and hard about the lessons we can learn from the Gagnier affair before they cast their ballots.   


Photo: flickr/ Michael Ignatieff

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...