Chuck Strahl, Stephen Harper and the Oily Politics of Contempt


FOR FAR LONGER than it was defensible to do so, the rabble and occupy elements of the opposition to Prime Minister Stephen Harper maintained the paranoid trope of an extreme and hidden agenda, whose Reform agents awaited the propitious moment to conquer the duped public by stealth. Eight years into the Harper Conservative era, it arrives as a historical irony – as well as a rebuke to an over laboured conspiracy – that the foremost reason to oppose Stephen Harper was also the reason many Canadians had tired of the Liberal Party of Canada. And that reason was the open contempt of the public shown by its government, a contempt whose exercise and underlying agenda was anything but hidden.

Upon everything, from the use of the omnibus bill to the misuse of public funds, the Conservatives heaped scorn, only to refine and amplify the playbook when in 2006 the titles and mailing addresses of certain MPs were exchanged. The imperious Liberals became the imperious and newly united Conservative Party of Canada, and the divided opposition continued to be divided with the surviving remnant of the decimated Liberals joining the NDP. On the boiler plate of every Reform and Canadian Alliance aspirant, in the late Chrétien years, was one variation or another of the assertion that the Liberals behaved as if they were entitled to be the natural governing party of the country. Unfortunately for Mr. Harper, political insults – and especially the good ones – are bipartisan.

How deep the rot is I’m unable to say. In my view, however, the Senate scandal began not with the disclosures of this past year, but with the scandalous 2008 appointments of Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau, about whom all that was necessary to know was already then known. Anyone paying attention at the time could discern the base political calculations which lay behind these appointments, as well as the fundraising and thuggery nexus which was the nuts and bolts of the operation. The exposure of precisely these services was the eventual undoing of the Prime Minister’s gentlemen agreements, setting in motion the further damage incurred by the damage control with which the notorious name of Nigel Wright will henceforth be associated.

Worst of all is that in the spaces between the scandals, the present government operates as if ethics and conflicts of interest mean nothing at all. I submit as the most recent test of this proposition the former Minister of Indian Affairs (now Aboriginal Affairs) and the current Chairman of the Canada Security Intelligence Review Committee and Enbridge lobbyist, Chuck Strahl. Here is how NDP Member of Parliament Nathan Cullen summarizes the matter:

The spy agency [CSIS] is spying on opponents and briefing [Enbridge], and that same spy agency has somebody who chairs the oversight group and lobbies for the company at the same time.

Too much is to be gained from the energy sector to expect that the federal government will be anything but aggressive in the fulfilment of contracts and quotas and grand business ambitions, and the opposition be damned. What is troubling is the heavy-handed manner in which the operation has been brought forward, from the enabling legislation to the conflicts of interest of which Strahl is the latest installment. On this theme of installments I recall to your mind the names Ari Ben-Menashe and Arthur Porter, the latter Strahl’s disgraced and ethics violating predecessor. This detail raises the possibility that in the person of Strahl the functions of lobbyist and CSIS watchdog have been merged in some sort of cost-saving effort. The more likely explanation however is also the more uncontroversial one: Stephen Harper has since the beginning shown contempt for ethical considerations when they get between him and where he wants to go.

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