Chuck Strahl's defence: I'm no Arthur Porter

Updated Jan. 10, 2014

Canada's top spy watchdog is trying to ride out a controversy over lobbying for Enbridge (and at least one other company that's partnered with a Chinese-controlled firm to develop the tar sands in Alberta).

Chuck Strahl, a former Conservative cabinet minister and current chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), popped up in the National Post on Wednesday to defend himself against allegations of a conflict of interest.

(Enbridge is waiting for a decision on its proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from the federal cabinet. It's also one of the energy companies that gets bi-annual classfied briefings from CSIS, which SIRC oversees, about security risks in the resources sector. This spy work includes spying on enviro groups for Big Oil.)

It's the same newspaper Strahl talked to in June 2012, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed him to the chairmanship of SIRC.

Back then, Strahl, who was building his consultancy business after leaving electoral politics in May 2011, told the National Post he had developed a "double make-sure" system to avoid conflicts of interest. That included a vow that he "won't lobby" governments.

Fast-forward to today, and Strahl is using different lines in the National Post:

1. Set a favourable benchmark to be judged against.

Certainly I’m not lobbying governments like Arthur Porter was. I’m not representing a foreign government. He got into trouble because he was involved with other governments. He poisoned the well. That’s what I remember.

For those who have forgotten, Strahl replaced Porter, another Harper appointee. Things went sideways with Porter's appointment when the National Post revealed "his strange business dealings" in Sierra Leone, "which included a $200,000 payment he once wired to a notorious Montreal lobbyist and international consultant, a man with ties to arms dealing, African dictators and Russia."

Separate from his troubles with his "diplomatic" work in Sierra Leone, Porter, who was based in Montreal, then faced charges of fraud, breach of trust and money-laundering for allegedly pocketing a portion of $22.5 million from SNC-Lavalin for making sure the company was the successful bidder to build a $1.3-billion hospital in Montreal. (Porter is now sitting in a jail in Panama, where he's beenfighting Canada’s extradition request.)

2. Attack the source of the news (Vancouver Observer)

The newspaper is aggressively 'anti-pipeline,' and its story was influenced by 'an agenda.... This isn't about right and wrong. This is about pipeline politics, right?'

The problem for Strahl is that his dual role as Canada's top spywatcher and pipeline lobbyist has generated plenty of criticism from non-partisan corners. Maclean's political editor Paul Wells told CTV's Power Play that, "he's got to pick," saying you can't protect Canada's national interests while looking out for those of Enbridge. Robert Fife, Ottawa Bureau Chief for CTV News, said Strahl "should either resign from that position" at SIRC or stop working for Enbridge.

3. Use the federal Ethics Commissioner as cover

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered him his SIRC post in 2012, Mr. Strahl added, he met with Mary Dawon, Canada's Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. She reviewed the situation and declared him conflict-free. He could legitimately serve as SIRC chairman while working for companies like Enbridge.

Mary Dawson, who doesn't see herself as a "watchdog" but rather as a councellor or advisor, conceded Parliament should toughen up the Conflict of Interest Act. Others are less charitable about the law and her office. Demoracy Watch, a citizen group that advocates democratic reform and government accountability, says 30 amendments need to be made to the law "to make corruption in federal politics illegal."

4. Plead for sympathy

I'm not independently wealthy.... I have to work.

Setting aside that Strahl himself acknowledges he has a "huge pension" from his time as an MP and cabinet minister, there's plenty of work out there that isn't so closely tied to federal government business. In other words, is it really wise to be on the federal payroll as a public office holder as Canada's top spy watchdog while lobbying for a company seeking approval for a pipeline from the same government?

We'll have to see if Strahl's colleagues on the SIRC board come up with similar explanations.

CBC News is reporting that two other members of the board of Canada's spy watchdog also have ties to Big Oil.

Denis Losier is a member of the board of director of Enbridge N.B., a wholly owned subsidiary of Enbridge Inc., Strahl's client and the company behind the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. Yves Fortier used to sit on the board of TransCanada Pipelines, the company behind the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.