The trouble with O'Connor isn't O'Connor
Gordon O'Connor lobbied on behalf of defence contractors for eight years from 1996 to 2004. But he served his country in uniform for over thirty years prior to that.
His military service was a calling, a career. The lobbying was simply a job. I know which carries more weight with me.
Of course, the opposition parties and the media see it a bit differently. I touched on the potentially troubling optics of appointing O'Connor as Minister of National Defence a few weeks back, and it seems my concerns were well founded.
From the Toronto Star:
During his years at Hill and Knowlton, a government public relations company, O'Connor made telephone calls, wrote letters and set up meetings in a bid to win business for big-name firms such as BAE systems, General Dynamics Canada and Raytheon Canada.
Up until Feb. 23, 2004, O'Connor was working for Airbus Military, which was angling to win a stake of the lucrative new contract for transport aircraft, federal records show.
The Liberals last fall announced plans to spend as much as $5 billion for 16 new transport aircraft to replace aging Hercules. The front-runner is the new model of the Hercules, the C-130J, but Airbus is also working behind-the-scenes to ensure its own aircraft, the A400, is considered as well.
I'm confident Minister O'Connor will conduct himself with the best interests of the military and the country at heart as MND, former clients be damned. But that won't stop the opposition - official, and press corps - from dragging his every decision through the mud of implied impropriety. And that poses its own problems, as David Rudd indicates in this article from CP:
However, Rudd says politics could produce an artificial tempest over the minister's lobbying background if it arose during a particularly touchy acquisition program.
"I can't think why it would be an issue, but that doesn't prevent the Opposition from raising the issue and the media love nothing more than a good fight."
That could make the military's procurement process - already long and Byzantine - even more difficult.
"It could become so politicized that nothing is done." (Babbler's italics)
The Ottawa Citizen lays the problem out just as clearly:
Defence contracts are tricky things. Just ask the pilots still flying Sea King helicopters because Jean Chretien cancelled in 1993 a deal to buy replacements. Just ask the federal lawyers who are about to defend the government against a $1-billion lawsuit filed 13 years later over a second contract to replace the same helicopters.
Mr. O'Connor is a man of integrity, but it is not good enough for him to dismiss questions about past lobbying with a "just watch me." His procurement decisions must be absolutely transparent, and he needs to give a clear sign that he appreciates why this is so.
Our new MND is a big boy - you don't become a general officer as a tanker without having the skin of a rhino - and I'm sure he can take the slings and arrows without flinching. I have no personal worries for O'Connor.
No, my concern is that endless questions of favouratism in procurement and the lawsuits that inevitably follow will hurt the CF. If that happens, I will be pissed off indeed.
When HMCS Athabaskan's helicopter crashed in the ocean last week, I applauded the Sea King's crew who remembered their training and escaped a potential underwater tomb to bob at the surface of one-degree-celsius seas for ten minutes while their rescue was executed by a frantic ship's company.
But here's what the ship's captain had to say about the incident:
This is a success story all around," Capt. Gardam said. "Five guys are alive and I have a 42-year-old helicopter that fell in the water. My priority is the five guys and, quite frankly, the helicopter should have been replaced a long time ago." (my emphasis once again)
He's right, and we must not let petty political concerns threaten lives yet again.
We cannot let politics interfere with getting our uniformed service personnel the equipment they need to do their very dangerous and demanding job. I'm sure Minister O'Connor's conduct will reflect that imperative, and if so, he will have my full and unqualified support.
But if eight years of his employment history cause enough of a ruckus to disrupt the long-overdue flow of decent equipment to our Armed Forces, I'll expect him to fall upon his sword and move aside for a less controversial replacement. Duty would demand nothing less.
Update: The CBC has a heavily editorialized, but at least factually accurate, "Reality Check" on the appointment of Gordon O'Connor as MND.
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?
This tracks back to what I said originally: I have every confidence Minister O'Connor will do his job to the best of his ability, but I remain concerned he will not be allowed to do it by those who have a greater interest in disrupting the government or creating a story than they do in the future of our military and our country.
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. And the main thing here is making sure the military gets back on its feet after decades of neglect. I trust O'Connor can do the job, I just hope he's given a real opportunity to.