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Go to In the News indexThe new defence minister and Caesar's wife

One of the considerable appeals of Stephen Harper in the months leading up to the election campaign was his appearance as a genuine straight arrow.

Day after day Harper assailed Paul Martin's Liberal government for its tolerance of corruption, for its apparent indifference to corruption among those who were friends of the party and friends of those in government.

During the actual election campaign Harper was even more insistent. His priority would be to clean up government, to clean up the mess left behind by the Liberals. You would not get that kind of mess from Mr. Straight Arrow and a Conservative government.

All of which was fair enough, because the sponsorship scandal made even loyal Liberals squirm, and it cast a shadow of doubt on everyone who served in government, whether bureaucrat or politician. So when Harper promised to clean up government, people listened.

Harper was particularly sharp about lobbying and the connections between those in government and those who are lobbyists, for lobbyists are paid handsomely for their efforts to sell government on ideas, attitudes and hardware.

So contemptuous was he of the close relations between lobbyists and government in Paul Martin's Ottawa that Harper decreed that henceforth those who have been ministers, ministerial staff or senior public servants may not lobby for five years after they leave government.

Yet, on the day he became prime minister, Harper appointed as his defence minister a man who was a lobbyist for the defence manufacturing industry for eight years before he entered politics.

In fairness, Gordon O'Connor severed his contacts with the clients for which he was a registered lobbyist before he first ran for Parliament in the election of June 2004.

Also, it should be noted that O'Connor was an impressive addition to the parliamentary process. He had served for 30 years in the military, rising to the rank of brigadier-general. So O'Connor in a parliamentary committee knew what questions to ask.

But asking the right questions in a parliamentary committee is not the same as making the final judgment on multimillion or multibillion-dollar contracts that are being sold by former colleagues and, one assumes, friends.

During his time as a lobbyist, Gordon O'Connor lobbied for 27 clients over the course of those eight years before he became an active politician.

Among those clients: BAE Systems, United Defense, General Dynamics, Atlas Elektronic GmbH, Raytheon Canada, and Airbus Military.

The Airbus connection is of particular interest because for several years the company has been trying to sell the Canadian government on the virtues of the A400M military transport to replace the aging Hercules aircraft.

One of the lobbyists for the Airbus transport was O'Connor, although that was before he entered politics.

The military transport contract is serious business. Last fall the Liberal government announced plans to spend $5 billion for 16 planes, which is enough money to make any company eager.

The main competition is the Lockheed Martin C130J and O'Connor complained quite recently that the military seemed to be favouring the Lockheed in the way they set out their requirements for the transport.

So the situation is that until two years ago, O'Connor was an active paid lobbyist for Airbus. As recently as two months ago, as an opposition critic, he suggested that the military seemed to be stacking the specifications in favour of the Airbus competitor.

And O'Connor is now the minister of the department that will eventually decide whether his department should buy Airbus or Lockheed. Given his active role in the past, can there be any doubt about his own views?

When the question about O'Connor was raised after the swearing-in of his new cabinet, Harper shrugged it off: "Having worked in an industry in the past does not constitute a conflict of interest in the present."

The prime minister might want to go back to the drawing board on that one. Someone who has worked in an industry in the past could as a result of that past association be improperly influenced. There could be a conflict of interest.

It goes back to the old wisdom that "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion."

And what would Caesar's wife think if she discovered that a defence minister had received $1,000 as an election donation from Calian Inc., a Kanata, Ont.- based company that received contracts worth more than $500 million to provide medical services for the armed forces?

That at least is what the Ottawa Citizen reported, when identifying the defence minister as Gordon O'Connor. It must be repeated that nobody has suggested anything improper about O'Connor, but what would Caesar's wife think?

Source: CBC News In-depth Reality Check
John Gray has worked for a number of Canadian newspapers, including most recently more than 20 years with the Globe and Mail, where he served as Ottawa bureau chief, national editor, foreign editor, foreign correspondent and national correspondent.

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