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lawrence martin

Isn't it a bit strange that Bob Dechert is being kept in his post as parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs?

According to reports, national security may not have been compromised by Mr. Dechert's e-mailing dalliance with Xinhua News Agency correspondent Shi Rong. But the Toronto-area MP showed such poor judgment in entering into that kind of relationship that his credibility in continuing in his position is surely shot through with doubts.

Removing a cabinet minister is a big deal, but this is only a matter of shuffling a parliamentary secretary. In today's politics, admitting mistakes – tout le monde being human – is something that looks good on any leader. Prime Minister Stephen Harper would score points by dropping Mr. Dechert and moving on. Instead, he sends yet another signal that players in his government are not held to high standards.

We saw this in the case of International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda, who became ensnared in a document-altering affair in the matter of cutting off funding to the aid group Kairos; she was not disciplined. We are seeing it with respect to Treasury Board President Tony Clement on a more serious matter – the diversion of $50-million in taxpayer money, originally slated for border infrastructure improvements, for projects to beautify his Muskoka riding. The opposition devoted a good deal of Question Period to the matter as Parliament reopened yesterday but was met with non-answers. Mr. Clement refuses to stand and defend himself.

The Prime Minister shows a leniency streak, as does John Baird, his go-to guy on many controversial files. As Foreign Affairs Minister, it's surely in his interest to have an untainted parliamentary secretary. But he, too, eats marshmallows for breakfast. He, too, defends the indefensible.

In a previous incarnation as overseer of the government's economic stimulus plan, Mr. Baird gave the green light to Mr. Clement's spending, which was revealed in an Auditor-General's report. As for the Kairos matter, Mr. Baird spoke on behalf of Ms. Oda earlier in the year, saying to a chorus of guffaws that she "has more integrity in the tip of her finger" than some of her opposition critics.

On the Dechert file, it should be remembered that this isn't the Cold War. Spying isn't the story it once was. But it was surely apparent that the Chinese news agency for which Ms. Shi works operates as an intelligence-gathering arm of the Beijing government. Canadian intelligence officials told CTV News that, while national security wasn't compromised, Mr. Dechert was incredibly naive to get involved with the Chinese woman and displayed a colossal lack of judgment.

The controversy is particularly ill-timed, of course, since it comes during a period when, after a long freeze, the Conservatives are establishing closer ties with the Chinese.

On the question of national security, you'll recall, Mr. Harper dumped Maxime Bernier as foreign affairs minister after he was found to have left state documents related to a NATO summit at the home of a girlfriend who had past ties with bikers and underworld figures.

One of the few instances where Mr. Harper has been criticized as being too harsh in disciplining a member of his team involved Helena Guergis, who had been caught up in several controversies. The PM let them pass but dropped her like a stone after receiving information that she was keeping company with unsavoury characters who may have been trying to gain favours from her department. Ms. Guergis was subsequently cleared of the allegations.

Mr. Harper also caused himself problems over his treatment of Brian Mulroney in the controversy involving cash payments the former PM received from lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber. The PM instructed party members not to contact Mr. Mulroney. At one point, word was put out by senior Conservatives that Mr. Mulroney was no longer even a member of the party. Relations with Mr. Mulroney and his Quebec network are still not mended.

These examples suggest caution sometimes needs to be exercised before the trigger is pulled. But in the Dechert case, there's a clear case of appalling judgment in a sensitive position.

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