Ninety years ago, British jurist Gordon Hewart, lord chief justice of England and Wales, articulated one of the most enduring and cryptic principles of the British-Canadian legal system.
“(It) is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done,” he wrote.
These days in politics, or at least in political Ottawa, the same applies.
Just ask former federal agriculture minister Chuck Strahl, well liked and almost universally respected during his 18 years as a Fraser Valley MP until his 2011 resignation.
He served as agriculture and transport minister, as well as opposition House leader, and showed political grit in 2001 when he left the Canadian Alliance caucus with a handful of others during the train-wreck leadership of Stockwell Day.
Strahl became a loyal and trusted disciple of Stephen Harper in opposition and government, rewarded in his retirement with a part-time appointment from his former boss as chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, which oversees the work of the national snoop agency Canadian Intelligence Security Service (heavy on security, not so much on intelligence).
Few begrudged the perk for a well-liked former MP.
Then his instincts failed.
In politics, as in justice (or in this case political appropriateness), the right thing must be done and be seen to be done.
Stahl resigned his position as SIRC chair late last week, under pressure after he registered as a British Col-umbia lobbyist to press the provincial government on behalf of an oil company hoping to build a pipeline from Alberta through B.C. to the coast.
He was not lobbying former federal colleagues and he promised parliamentary ethics commissioner Mary Dawson that he would not be in-volved in any SIRC files relating to the energy and pipeline issue. Dawson said he met all the lobbying rules.
But with CSIS reportedly collecting information on the energy industry and the Northern Gateway pipeline a highly sensitive and controversial issue, the critics piled on.
“It is alarming to many Canadians that the chair of the CSIS oversight committee is engaged in this kind of lobbying,” said NDP House leader and B.C. MP Nathan Cullen.
There were calls for his resignation.
Strahl initially resisted, responding that the criticisms were “entirely spurious and unfounded.” But with the Conservatives facing questions on several ethical fronts and Parliament resuming this week, he quickly decided to cut his losses.
“I retired from politics three years ago and do not wish to be in the centre of the political fray,” he said in a Jan. 24 letter to prime minister Stephen Harper.
This is the new political reality in Ottawa, driven in part by Harper’s Accountability Act and made more sensitive these days by evidence of former Conservative senators playing fast and loose with expense claims.
Opposition MPs howl about conflict of interest, proven or unproven (as Conservatives did in opposition and will again when they are back someday in that position), and players must understand the new rules.
In retrospect, it is amazing that a seasoned politician like Strahl would not have smelled the likely reaction to a federal appointee with access to sensitive information lobbying on a controversial issue near and dear to the Conservative’s agenda.
In politics, sometimes instincts fail.