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The ruling by the ethics commissioner that David MacNaughton, Canada’s former ambassador in Washington, broke the conflict of interest laws should not have come as a surprise, but it did.
John A. Macdonald once said that while he did not believe all Grits were horse-thieves, “I feel sure that all horse-thieves are Grits.”
The same might be said of those in the political class who seek to derive personal benefit from their current, or in this case former, official position.
Not all Liberals are guilty of the practice but it seems that time and again, those found guilty are Liberals.
The Harper Conservatives were guilty of many besetting sins – from contempt of Parliament to contravening Elections Canada rules. But they weren’t as openly hoggish when it came to personal endowment.
The surprise is that it is someone as savvy and experienced as MacNaughton who has been sanctioned by the ethics commissioner, Mario Dion.
Nine senior officials, including two Cabinet ministers and the chief of the defence staff, have been told to have no official dealings with the former ambassador because he is deemed to have breached section 33 of the Conflict of Interest Act, which states that no former public office holder shall take “improper advantage” of his or her former position.
The formal notice from Dion’s office said that MacNaughton, the former “Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Canada to the United States” communicated or arranged meetings last spring with a number of officials in government, including now Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, to offer pro-bono assistance to the government in its fight against COVID-19, on behalf of his new employer, Palantir Technologies, an American software company that specializes in big data analytics.
The fact that the improper lobbying was on behalf of a company as controversial as Palantir played a part in MacNaughton’s embarrassment. Dion’s investigation was instigated after a complaint from NDP Charlie Angus, who has been critical of Palantir as “data mercenaries”. The company has contracts with the American military to provide AI for drones and its software was used to help the Trump Administration deport migrants. Co-founder, Peter Thiel, was a vocal supporter of Donald Trump in 2016.
It is a surprise to many people in Ottawa that MacNaughton exercised such bad judgement – and that political staff allowed him access to ministers.
“I live in fear of having anything to do with the ethics commissioner. There’s no way he (MacNaughton) was not aware that what he was doing was wrong,” said one prominent Hill lobbyist.
MacNaughton has decades of experience in the lobbying industry in Canada, as former chairman of Strategy Corp. and North American president of Hill & Knowlton. He must know the Conflict of Interest Act back to front. After he left Washington, the ethics commissioner’s office even held “consultations” to apprise him of his obligations under the Conflict of Interest and Lobbying acts.
MacNaughton, the Liberal Ontario co-chair in the 2015 election campaign, appears to have offered Palantir’s data mining technology to the government to assist in the pandemic response.
He was not registered to lobby and acknowledged “with the benefit of hindsight” that the communications and meetings could have furthered Palantir’s interests, according to Dion’s release.
Because they see their path is noble, they give themselves special dispensation for moral lapses
MacNaughton did register his interactions with the various ministers, deputy ministers and senior staffers, and no contracts were awarded to Palantir. But it is clear that MacNaughton should not have bent the rules to breaking point.
So how could someone so smart and experienced fall foul of the ethics law?
It appears to be a recurring vulnerability among senior Liberals, who seem to believe that like the Freemasons, they are sworn to help one another out. Why else would savvy politicians like Freeland risk dealing with MacNaughton.
He was an excellent ambassador – the right man in the right place at the right time when the Trump Administration launched its trade war on Canada. He was trusted by Trudeau and possessed the right mix of political and business experience to be an effective point man in Washington.
But none of that excuses breaching laws put in place to ensure people don’t trade on their former connections.
As with Justin Trudeau’s vacation on the Aga Khan’s island; with the SNC-Lavalin scandal, and with the ongoing WE charity debacle, there is a sense in this case that the normal rules don’t apply.
In his book, The Vision of the Anointed – Self Congratulation as Basis for Social Policy, Conservative thinker Thomas Sowell describes The Anointed as self-appointed saviours of those treated unfairly by society.
Because they see their path is noble, they give themselves special dispensation for moral lapses and rules can be broken with a clear conscience.
Without talking to MacNaughton, it’s hard to know if that’s what happened here. But there must be some intrinsic reason that these ethical breaches happen with such frequency – from Trudeau to Bill Morneau to this week’s alleged transgressor, MP Raj Grewal, who has been charged with fraud and breach of trust.
The swivel-eyed legions of partisan zombies will toss out names like former Conservative MP, Dean Del Mastro, who was found guilty of violating the Canada Elections Act.
But the public perception is that it is the Liberals who bail out their wealthy friends – an impression that MacNaughton’s behaviour will help cement.
Even before being elected Conservative leader, Erin O’Toole was running ads claiming it is time Canadians had a government that “fights for their needs, instead of fighting for attention from global celebrities and corrupt corporate insiders.”
The narrative is similar to the one that saw Stephen Harper elected in 2006 – “a clear choice between a culture of entitlement and corruption and a culture of accountability.”
In both cases, “everyday Canadians, the hard-working people who pay their taxes and play by the rules” are urged to vote for a government that will put “the people’s interests ahead of self-interest”. This is dangerous terrain for the Liberals.
The party’s reputation has been tarnished by a succession of wounding scandals. None of them has proven fatal but the cuts accumulate.
Having a Liberal patriarch censured by an officer of Parliament will scarcely have improved the party’s standing.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020