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Politics Campaign co-chair controversy may curb a late Liberal surge in Quebec

Just as Justin Trudeau was ratcheting up the whole vibe of fresh, new, hopeful, 'real change' to ride through election day, his campaign co-chair had to be cut loose for what seems like old-timey Liberal behaviour.

In case you missed it, Dan Gagnier, the Liberal campaign co-chair, resigned Wednesday when it emerged he sent an e-mail on Monday to officials at TransCanada pipelines, advising them dealing with a new government on energy policy and pipeline reviews, including for the proposed Energy East pipeline.  Mr. Gagnier was at that time working on electing a new government, to be, he hoped, headed by the guy sitting a few rows in front of him on the Liberal campaign plane.

In fact, it turns out that TransCanada hired Mr. Gagnier on contract this past spring to work on Energy East, according to the company.

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There's no doubt it's bad for Mr. Trudeau's Liberals. It brings back memories of lapses in Liberal ethics, symbolized by the sponsorship scandal that fuelled their fall a decade ago. It contrasts the image of hopeful change Mr. Trudeau is trying to convey with a sense of cynical backroom dealings -- Mr. Gagnier was a paid contractor for TransCanada since the spring. And it involves  Energy East, a project that's controversial in Quebec.

That's doubly bad for the Liberals, because Mr. Trudeau was hoping to use the momentum his campaign had gained elsewhere to spark a late surge in Quebec -- where the Liberal Leader campaigned Thursday.

Mr. Trudeau tried to put the whole thing behind him, calling Mr. Gagnier's actions "unacceptable" and "inappropriate," and saying Thursday that his ethical standards were shown by the fact that Mr. Gagnier was out "within 24 hours" of the e-mail becoming known. The Liberals, Mr. Trudeau said, are "well aware" of perceptions and "the challenges the Liberal Party has had to address in the past." That's why, he said, he's demonstrated high standards for his team.

But it's not just churlish to note that the Liberals' initial reaction on Wednesday was less uncompromising, blaming the controversy on Conservatives' negative attacks. Every party has consultants working on their campaigns with other business interests, Liberal operatives noted. Mr. Gagnier said he never broke any rules but was quitting to avoid being a distraction. In other words, it took a while for Liberals to decide this was unacceptable behaviour.

Really? Ask any group of Canadians to put up their hands if they think it's improper for a senior campaign official to be advising oil-pipeline companies on how to get in quickly with a new government to get what they want – at the very same time as they're advising the guy they expect will lead that new government a week later. All hands will be in the air. It's not a complex ethical conundrum.

It is surprising that it's Mr. Gagnier. He is an experienced veteran, an avuncular, smiling presence brought into the Liberal campaign last year because they lacked senior Quebec advisers and wise old heads.  He was the eminence grise, the adult supervision, prized for his good judgment.

He has been a Canadian diplomat, a senior bureaucrat in Ottawa and Ontario, a vice-president at Alcan, and chief of staff to then-Quebec Premier Jean Charest. He has a head for serious policy, and has worked on environmental issues both as policy-maker and for business. He was President of the Energy Policy Institute of Canada, an organization backed by the oil industry promoting its idea for a national energy strategy.

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And then there was TransCanada, who say that Mr. Gagnier was working for them on Energy East since the spring. The Liberals said he never advised the party on energy issues, because of his connections to the industry. But it was obvious that such a senior player so close to Mr. Trudeau should not be advising energy companies on how to get the jump on deal with him, either. There's an obvious problem with working on both sides of the same street.

Now the question is whether the old memories come back vividly, or not. It's close to voting day, and this episode could be just a speed bump, but as the Liberals look for a late lift-off in Quebec, and last-weekend momentum, they'll have to worry that this episode could curb the enthusiasm.

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