Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The trouble with O'Connor isn't O'Connor

Babble on.

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.

Babble off.

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.


At 5:58 p.m., Blogger Tim said...

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.

As confident as you were that Harper would make the right choices?

At 7:08 p.m., Blogger BBS said...

A process that involves the Deputy Minister, O'Connor and the CDS signing off on all procurement decisions would probably go a long way to mollifying some concerns.

If you follow the critic's logic, someone with a financial background should never be Finance Minister. He or she might favour a previous employer.

At 8:42 p.m., Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Fair comment, Tim.

What's your alternative? I hope it's not yet another minister who knows nothing about our Armed Forces.

It's tougher to betray your comrades in arms than it is to play political games, so I'm going to give O'Connor the benefit of the doubt.

As insurance, my original recommendation (from the Jan 17 post) still stands: agree to abide by the recommendations of the Standing Committee on Defence on any matters pertaining to procurement where your former clients are involved.

A poor solution, but the best I can come up with to alleviate opposition fears.

At 11:13 a.m., Blogger Paul Kimball said...

It's not just actual conflict of interest that is damaging, it is the appearance of a conflict of interest. Even assuming that O'Connor is as white as the driven snow, there will always be questions.

Cleaning up government requires that the "no lobbyist" rule extends to not only after the time a person has been in office, but also to the time prior to his or her term in office.

As for the suggestion that the CDS should have to sign off on procurement decisions, that's a non-starter. Procurement decisions are ultimately a political matter, in the sense that it is the politicians who get to make that decision, and then be held accountable for it. Neither the CDS nor the DM should have anything even remotely resembling a veto.

Paul Kimball

At 1:58 p.m., Blogger VW said...

Paul is being overly pessimistic.

There are general officers who could make excellent Defence Ministers -- Lewis McKenzie would certainly qualify. Trouble is, they very rarely run for political office and those who do often botch the campaign because they're incapable of compromise.

In this Parliament, to be a good Defence minister you need one of two things on your CV: knowledge of military history or actual experience in the officer corps. People who will, in fact, fight in Cabinet to get the tools the Forces need.

As things stand right now, O'Connor is the best qualified for the job. He knows the military, he's been the party critic on Defence. That, in my opinion, trumps any "buck in it" concerns over his lobbying background.

At 2:41 p.m., Blogger Chris Taylor said...

I'd be okay with a minister who did not know too much about the CF, so long as he listened carefully to the service-side professionals and took their advice.

There are precious few parliamentarians who possess both a working knowledge of the CF, and the appearance of clean hands.

At 2:59 p.m., Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

I corresponded with a very keen, credible and well-known military-watcher (with some military experience himself) prior to the election, and he opined that he'd prefer to see a competent civilian get the job (Jay Hill was his suggestion, because of his performance as Defence Critic prior to O'Connor). Too much general-officer-mindset could be a hindrance, rather than a help. You need a politician to handle the political stuff, not another general. Et cetera.

I'm not sure I agree, but it's certainly an interesting and supportable line of thought.

At 4:08 p.m., Blogger Paul Kimball said...


I didn't say that a former officer, even a former CDS, could never serve as Defence Minister after he had retired. I said a current CDS should not have a veto on procurement decisions. I also maintain that a former general who was a defence industry lobbyist for several years is not the best choice for the portfolio.

Having said that, however, let me say this - as a general rule, I would not have a former senior officer as Minister of National Defence. I think it's always best to have someone who is a bit more objective, and can see the big picture, and that means a civilian.

As long as they're competent, they can do the job as well, and probably better, than an ex-general.


At 6:00 p.m., Blogger MB said...

I think most people here would be surprised at how little say Defence has in procurment. There are no less than 17 departments that have a say, Treasury being the most powerful. Most (if not all) of the poor purchases in the last 10-15 years are due to political decisions (can you say Western Star (LSVW) and Kim Campbell).

At 6:29 p.m., Blogger AwaWiYe said...

With a long-service armed forces member in the MND slot, you have the potential for the same - usually temporary - shortcoming of some (not all) of the people commissioned from senior NCO ranks: inability to stay in the new lane and leave the old lane to the people responsible.

(BTW, can the word verification by presented without the fancy rolling script?)

At 11:11 p.m., Blogger joebal said...

Regarding the upadate with the CBC story, am I the only one who regards $1000 as a rather paltry sum? This would not have made or broken his campaign, and is not likely to influence his decsions.


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