(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)
Politics makes for some strange new definitions of words I thought I understood.
Many of us first witnessed this when former U.S. president Bill Clinton was taken to task for some Oval Office indiscretions. When is sex not sex? Apparently it depends what your definition of "is" is. But whether Clinton started or merely followed a grand tradition, certainly redefinition goes on, even right here in Simcoe County.
When is a letter not a letter? By now everyone knows office workers for Simcoe-Grey Conservative MP Helena Guergis were caught red-handed writing glowing letters to local papers (including the Examiner's sister paper the Collingwood Enterprise-Bulletin), not mentioning they were her taxpayer-funded employees. One, sent to Macleans magazine, generated an odd response from the writer, Valerie Knight. Seeking to clarify the situation, she explained here that she did indeed send the letter, listing her home phone and address, but not her employer. Macleans called her to confirm and asked if she worked for Guergis; learning she did, they didn't publish it. So kudos to Macleans for doing their homework, but how does this absolve Ms. Knight's actions? The fact remains she sent the letter, hoping to see it in print.
Guergis herself has confused me by claiming to be unaware of said letters. Perhaps her Collingwood and Alliston staff hid those papers from her, but each cabinet minister receives a digest from her Ottawa staff containing any articles mentioning her or her ministry. Did she neglect to read her own daily briefing books? What else did she miss?
The chain of strange definitions continues. Helena's husband and former Alliance/Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer, himself no stranger to staff shenanigans, testified to a House committee that he has never consumed illegal drugs. That seems only logical, given his 2008 radio ads attacking NDP support for legalization of cannabis - although actual NDP policy is decriminalization, something Jaffer himself has publicly supported since 2000. Yet that creates some very interesting questions about the bag of cocaine the OPP reportedly found in his vehicle. Although possession charges were dropped due, apparently, to technicalities, the drugs themselves remain. Did the OPP catch him just in time to prevent his first "experiment"?
However, that's of little direct political consequence. (Bill Clinton didn't inhale, either). More important are serious allegations of illegal lobbying, or perhaps even influence peddling.
On this point Jaffer is clear: he's not a lobbyist because he wasn't paid (yet) to lobby, and hasn't managed (yet) to secure any government funds for businesses. But that's like saying you're not a car salesman because you haven't managed to sell any cars, and haven't received any commissions. Just ignore the desk at the dealership with your name on it. Or in this case, ignore the confirmation from four other cabinet ministers that Jaffer met with their staff to discuss government programs.
A lobbyist seeks to influence political decisions by meeting with politicians on behalf of clients. If you succeed, your clients will hopefully share some of their gains with you. But if you fail, it doesn't mean you're not a lobbyist; it just means you're not a very good one. *
And in Canada, all lobbyists, good or bad, paid or not, must register with the Commissioner of Lobbying. But Jaffer did not, which (to his mind) means he's not a lobbyist. Time to get me a new dictionary.
* since writing this article, I have learned that the definition of a lobbyist specifies that a lobbyist must register if they do their work "for payment". So if Jaffer never received payment, and did not expect to ever recieve payment, then perhaps this loophole applies. However, it would appear from documents and evidence that he or his company were hoping to receive some form of payment if they were successful in lobbying for government funding. It just hadn't happened yet.
Another addition: in preparing this blog post, I learned that the Simcoe-Grey Conservative EDA vice-president publicly tut-tutted the Guergis letter-writing campaign, despite himself having written one of the offending letters! I've read that Barrie CPC MP Patrick Brown's staffer Bonnie Ainsworth also wrote one, but have not yet found it online. If you find it, please send me the link and I'll update the site.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.