The old Campbell would have seen a conflict question
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - First day back in the legislature, and NDP leader Joy MacPhail raised what seemed to be a pretty good question.
As the Liberals were hard at work on their energy plan last year, they decided to hire some expert outside help to present it to the public. They turned - as the NDP had in the past - to National Public Relations' Vancouver office, and signed a $22,000 contract with Marcia Smith.
No harm there. In a perfect world governments would be able to handle these kind of things with the large gang of people on staff who charged with communicating with us. But in a perfect world I'd be smarter, too.
However only days before Energy Minister Richard Neufeld's department hired Smith, she had registered as a provincial lobbyist for the Canadian Coalition for Responsible Energy.
Sounds nice, doesn't it? There's not many people about to organize a counter group, the citizens for irresponsible energy.
But the coalition would be more accurately labelled the Canadian coalition of businesses worried about getting hurt by the Kyoto Accord, especially the oil and gas and coal industries. (There is no shame in being in that group; many good questions remain about the accord's approach to reducing greenhouse gases.)
Now those two jobs would strike many people as a problem. Smith was working for a special interest group to make sure it's anti-Kyoto Accord message was heard by the Liberal government. And then she's hired - at the same time - by the same government to develop a plan to explain their new energy policy to the public and stakeholders.
If it's me, and I'm sitting in my office on a grey Sunday morning putting the finishing touches on the communications plan, I'm going to wonder - did I add this sentence because it's the best for the government, or best for the companies that I'm lobbying for?
And even if I'm sure I've kept the roles separate, I'm going to wonder how this would look.
Neufeld ignored the questions, just filled in the time with a lot of blather about how great the Liberals are and how bad the New Democrats were. If you asked your kid a simple question and they answered with a lot of self-serving irrelevancies and ignored the real issue entirely, you'd wonder where you'd gone wrong. In Question Period, it's par for the course.
But an hour later Premier Gordon Campbell did a rare session with reporters in the waiting room outside his office and faced the issue.
He didn't see a problem, the premier said.
But couldn't the public wonder at the impartiality of a consultant drafting a plan to emphasize some parts of the energy policy and downplay others, who was also being paid to influence government energy policy? Couldn't it make people nervous to know that a person registered to lobby for an industry group was getting an advance look at the policy?
No, said the premier, and anyway the lobbying was about the Kyoto Accord, not energy.
But surely the province couldn't have developed an energy policy without considering the Kyoto Accord?
"Absolutely," said Campbell. Kyoto didn't even figure in the energy policy.
Anyway, he added, it's not the government's problem. The contract says it's up to the consultant to tell the government of any potential conflicts. The government is clean.
Here's how to figure out who's right, Campbell or MacPhail.
Cast your mind back a few years, and imagine it came to light that the NDP government had hired a consultant to help launch a new labour law policy. And imagine that it turned out the same consultant was being paid to lobby on behalf of the a group of big unions on the same issue.
I'm guessing Gordon Campbell would have found something wrong about that.
Footnote: Give the Liberals full credit in one area. The issue arose because they passed a law requiring lobbyists to register and disclose who they're working for, on what issues and who they're contacting in government. The lobbyist registry was an important step forward in accountability and openness, and the government deserves full marks for putting it in place.
Who sent a Canadian citizen to a Syrian jail?
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - A Canadian citizen is snatched by U.S. police while changing planes in New York. The Americans send him to Jordan, then Syria, against his will. He spends a year in jail without being charged, facing a secret trial. Then he's returned to Canada without explanation.
And our government, the people who are supposed to be protecting Canadians from abuse, wants to keep the circumstances -- including its role -- a deep, dark secret.
Maher Arar was on his way back to his Ottawa home from a Tunisian holiday when he was arrested in New York and sent to the Mideast. American police or the CIA apparently considered him a suspected terrorist.
But what's supposed to happen in such cases that the Americans can either hold a suspect, if they have charges, or deport him to Canada.
So why was Arar, a software engineer, sent to Syria, locked up for a year and separated from his wife and two young children without any charge? What role did the Canadian government and the RCMP play in the affair? And now that he's released -- having missed a year of his childrens' lives while languishing in a Syrian jail -- what justification was there for the snatching of a Canadian citizen by three foreign governments?
None of your business, says the federal government. He's back in one piece, so just drop it. (I'm paraphrasing.)
It's not just Arar who wants answers. MPs from all parties have been trying to find out how and why this happened, and what role the Canadian government played.
They especially want to know whether the RCMP set Arar up, sharing intelligence with the U.S. that led to his imprisonment. (But not to any supportable charges.)
That seems a reasonable question.
But Solicitor General Wayne Easter won't answer the MPs' questions. "Aren't you as mad as a wet hen that [United States officials] took a Canadian citizen and sent him to a Syrian gulag?" Liberal MP John Harvard demanded at a foreign affairs committee meeting this week.
Easter isn't mad. He stonewalled the committee. Discussing RCMP operational matters could compromise continuing investigations, he said. That's the same non-answer RCMP assistant commissioner Richard Proulx tried when he appeared before the committee.
MPs -- again, including Liberal MPs -- wanted to know what role the RCMP played in the arrest and whether they had told the Americans to grab Arar and send him to a Mideast jail. Proulx wouldn't answer. I'm the police, you're just MPs. Beat it. (I'm paraphrasing again.)
Prime Minister Jean Chretien said pretty much the same thing. "Every time that we have a problem in government we cannot have an inquiry on everything," he said.
A problem in government? A Canadian citizen is snatched and transported to Syria against his will, with no charges and no hearing, no access to a lawyer. He's questioned by the CIA, and his own government is denied access to him.
The rule of international law, and basic principles of human rights, were tossed aside.
Canadians deserve answers. Did the RCMP play a role in Arar's detention by the U.S.? They won't say, but the Americans say they grabbed Arar because of information provided by Canadian police.
Did the Canadian government play a role in having Arar sent to Syria -- the country he left 17 years ago as a teen? Was there an attempt to get around Canadian law, where some evidence is required before a person is arrested, by conspiring with the U.S. and Syria?
MPs from all parties haven't been able to get the answers to those questions, stonewalled by police and federal ministers.
The only solution left is a full, independent inquiry.
Our laws hold us all responsible for our actions. They are also intended to protect us from abuse by our governments.
Canadians need to know whether the government decided a citizen's rights didn't matter in this case.
Footnote: The Arar case also highlights the drift in Ottawa, where Chretien and Paul Martin are both acting like prime ministers, with the result that neither is really accountable for the decisions now being made. Chretien's desire to stay in power until February looks increasingly destructive.