One of the toughest things about being a politician or a public office holder (i.e., officials of a Prime Minister's Office) is the whisper in your ear.
No matter where you are – running to catch a plane in an airport or browsing for a good read in a bookstore – someone will often recognize you, sidle up and try to take advantage of a chance meeting. They may request a more formal meeting, a plea for a government appointment or, more benignly, a policy idea. There is nothing nefarious in these encounters. It is human nature to want to connect and put forward an agenda.
However, when the request is not straightforward, but rather a professional arrangement in which payment or benefit is part of the equation, the game changes – and so do the rules. At that point, people have a right to know why a request is being made. Transparency is not just a cute buzzword. It is designed to cut right through the heart of corruption, defined on the website of Transparency International as "the abuse of entrusted power for private gain." In other words, any hidden agenda must be visible.
This paper has reported that Jean Charest, the former premier of Quebec, attempted in a conversation with the Prime Minister's Principal Secretary, Gerald Butts, to arrange a meeting on behalf of TransCanada Corp. in its bid for the Energy East project.
Details are slightly confusing. Were Mr. Charest and Mr. Butts in a formal meeting on another subject? Was it simply a chance meeting as described above? Was it a social event? Were others present?
Neither Mr. Charest nor his law firm will comment on his involvement in the project, nor would they confirm whether, in fact, TransCanada is a client. TransCanada told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Charest has not worked for, or been paid by, TransCanada since last fall. The company did not say if the law firm where Mr. Charest is a partner is currently doing any business on the company's behalf. The Globe report said Mr. Charest was not registered to lobby the federal government. Lobbying Commissioner Karen Shepherd said Thursday she would begin a review of the Charest matter.
Without a clearer explanation, we are left to wonder how the situation developed in the first place and how such an experienced politician should find himself in the middle of this state of affairs, because the history of the legislation related to lobbying has been impossible to ignore for politicians.
Mr. Charest was first elected to the House of Commons in 1984, five years before the introduction of the Lobbying Act. Initially a weak piece of legislation, it did not mature into more sophisticated law until 1997, when the Lobbyist Code was created.
Even then, the office was bounced between different departments and suffered from poor oversight. Still more changes were required, until the full-time, independent position of commissioner of lobbying was established in 2008.
Similarly, the Quebec National Assembly unanimously enacted the Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Act in 2002. According to its website, "the aim of the law is to foster transparency in the lobbying of public office holders and to ensure that lobbying activities are properly conducted." In other words, the issue of lobbying and its regulatory framework has been the subject of much discussion and debate.
Mr. Charest is a highly respected lawyer with an extensive background in government, both federal and provincial. We need to hear his side of the story. Were his words misinterpreted? Was he simply trying to be helpful and bring all the parties to the table in the contentious debate over a potential new pipeline?
Or was he, in fact, lost in the mists of a bygone era? Did he not realize that the days of whispering in someone's ear, as people undoubtedly did to him, are over?
No doubt, both Mr. Charest and the Lobbying Commissioner will provide answers in due course, but however this contretemps is resolved, the allegation and situation have served as a warning light to anyone who prefers to operate in secretive back rooms without transparency.
Whispering in ears is out. Blowing the whistle is in.