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Canada's former ambassador to the U.S., David MacNaughton, seen in a file photo from Sept. 27, 2018, has been found in violation of the Conflict of Interest Act.
In a file photo from Feb. 6, 2019, then Canadian ambassador to the United States David MacNaughton and then foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland meet with U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch in Washington.
David MacNaughton, then Canada’s ambassador to the United States, opens the door for then foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland at the Office of the United States Trade Representative in Washington in a file photo from Aug. 29, 2018.
There’s something about the notion of ethics that causes a great deal of confusion for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of his government.
It really shouldn’t. Canada has a federal ethics commissioner, and clearly laid-out rules on what is and isn’t considered ethical behaviour. It’s not really complicated, at heart — the basic idea is that elected officials or high-level appointees shouldn’t use their office to benefit themselves, accept special favours or do them for their buddies. And once they leave office they shouldn’t use the relationships they forged to gain special access to the government, hustle for contracts or pad the profits of their new employers.
What’s so hard about that?
It’s not really complicated, at heart
Beats me, but something in those simple rules clearly befuddles Liberals. The latest example is the order issued by Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion barring nine Ottawa heavies, including Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, Industry Minister Navdeep Bains and Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance, from official dealings with David MacNaughton.
McNaughton is a very high-up and well-connected Liberal. He helped run the 2015 election campaign that brought the Liberals to power. A grateful Trudeau appointed him ambassador to the U.S. He dealt closely with Freeland when they were working on the new NAFTA trade bill. After leaving his post he joined Palantir Technologies, a major data-analytics firm co-founded by Peter Thiel, a billionaire Californian and enthusiastic supporter of President Donald Trump, on whose behalf he delivered a stirring homily at the 2016 Republican convention.
Palantir is considered controversial in some circles because it’s deeply involved in the data business which, as is no secret, has lots of legitimate activities and also some pretty murky ones. Palantir boasts expertise in national intelligence operations, counterterrorism and assistance to military “warfighters,” among other activities. The big concern about Huwaei’s desire to sell 5G equipment in Canada is how it will use the data it would have access to, and whether it would filter back to the Chinese government for nefarious uses for which it is well known. Data is power. There’s big money to be made from it.
Once installed as president of Palantir’s Canadian operations a year ago, MacNaughton set about contacting several of his old associates in the federal government. Speaking to the U.S. news site Politico this year he said, “Do I talk to Nav Bains and do I talk to (then-finance) minister (Bill) Morneau and everything? … Sure I do. I talk to them about what … we think is going to happen in terms of Canada-U.S. relations.” According to Dion , between March and May, MacNaughton “communicated with or arranged multiple meetings with several public office holders for the purpose of offering pro bono assistance on behalf of Palantir in respect of the Government of Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Pro bono means “for the public good,” i.e. free. Of course, there’s free and there’s free. Maybe Palantir doesn’t charge anything this time around, but who knows what happens when pleased Liberals are pondering deals down the road and remember what great guys MacNaughton and his folks were during the pandemic. Ask Marc and Craig Kielburger about the complications that can set in once you fly too close to the sunny ways of federal friendships.
Taking note of MacNaughton’s actions, New Democrat MP Charlie Angus, who seems to have a grasp on the idea of ethics that escapes Liberals, asked commissioner Dion to have a look-see. That resulted in Dion issuing his order barring Freeland et al from having any official contact with him until September 2021.
Of course, there’s free and there’s free
MacNaughton, noted Dion, had consulted his office before joining Palantir, and acknowledged “with the benefit of hindsight” that he’d violated the act. But why was the hindsight necessary?
The Kielburger boys were tripping down the same dubious lane about the same time, but neither has the depth of government insight or experience as MacNaughton. What is it about the mandate of the ethics office that convinces Liberals it only applies to other people and other parties? Maybe it needs a warning on the cover of its rules and regulations, in big red letters, words in capitals and lots of Trumpian exclamation marks: “Dear Liberals, cronies and pals of the PM, THIS MEANS YOU TOO!!!!”
We well know that Trudeau doesn’t understand how being prime minister subjects him to these rules. He’s violated them twice and is into his third investigation. The PM’s office brushed off the MacNaughton embarrassment with a statement thanking him for “his immense contribution to public life.”
It’s worrying, therefore, that Freeland seems to suffer the same affliction. She headed the cabinet committee on the corona virus, and, while she skated through the Kielburger mess relatively unharmed, she evidently missed all the warning signs along with the rest of them. Now we learn she didn’t think to wonder about the propriety of MacNaughton offering up his new firm’s services, even at, or perhaps particularly at, pro bono prices.
Freeland is known for getting along with people. She made a pal of U.S. negotiator Robert Lighthizer and had him over to the house for dinner . The Liberals ran their last Ontario campaign on the premise that Premier Doug Ford was Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump rolled into one, but Freeland quickly tamed the beast. “I absolutely love Chrystia Freeland. She’s amazing. I’ll have her back, I’ll help her any way we can,” Ford said when she was named finance minister. Maybe she thought MacNaughton was just another great guy, eager to be a new bestie.
Apart from not having his calls put through, the punishment for MacNaughton is zilch. A bit of bad press, but so what? Other than naming and shaming, Dion has almost no punitive powers. Perhaps that’s why the Liberals don’t take him or his office seriously, and keep stumbling into these fiascos. They could, of course, beef up the powers and penalties of the ethics office, give it some real teeth and demonstrate some commitment to the idea of honest ethics. But, what the hey, why bother? They’ve never done business like that in the past, why start now?
• Twitter: KellyMcParland
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020