Jen Gerson: The Liberals didn't do anything wrong, for once

The PM's chief of staff did the right thing: but is it even possible to avoid perceived conflicts when everybody's interests are now so intertwined by the Octopus economy?

A name familiar to politicos wandered into the headlines this week thanks to a story reported by the Globe and Mail and National Post. In short, a contract worth as much as $84 million was awarded to MCAP, a private mortgage company, to oversee the government's small business commercial rent relief program. 

And who is MCAP's Senior Vice-President, Strategy, Policy, Risk? 

A man named Rob Silver, who is married to Katie Telford, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staff. The Globe and Post also revealed that Silver met with a staffer at the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), a Crown corporation, to discuss some communications around the government contract. 

According to the reports, this all began when the CMHC decided that it could not manage the government's program in house. Two companies were approached to put together a proposal, and MCAP won the bid.  

A spokesperson for CMHC told the Globe that Silver was not involved with "contract negotiations and has not been involved with the delivery of services related to the (program)." Further, it appears that Telford had no role in the awarding of the contract and, in fact, established an extensive conflict of interest screen with the ethics commissioner with regards to her husband's new job. 

So that’s all good. But, as the kids say, context is key: this federal government has already blundered into two entirely separate ethics scandals that involved a too-fuzzy line between the prime minister’s public interests and those of his friends and family. One would have imagined that all parties involved would have been, if anything, overly sensitive to any perceived conflicts of interests. 

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Still, a tepid defence of Silver and Telford is warranted: they don’t appear to have done anything wrong. That doesn’t mean that the stories about this, nor the ongoing scrutiny, are in any way undeserved. Hell, with the Trudeau government’s record, such scrutiny is demanded. As uncomfortable as Silver and Telford may find the current moment, her boss’s repeated bad behaviour has made it unavoidable. If they don’t like it, they know who to blame. (Though let’s be real — they’ll continue to bay for the blood of Bob Fife.)

The real mystery here is why the prime minister's chief of staff has proven more adept at managing the intricacies of the Conflict of Interest Act than her boss. Helping our prime minister stay on the right side of the fuzzy line is, after all, surely part of her job. Ever since the WE scandal broke, Ottawa watchers have wondered about Trudeau and Telford. Is it that neither of them ever learns, or does Trudeau simply ignore her?

Given that Telford was canny enough to get herself an ethics screen, maybe we have that answer. 

For those blissfully unaware, Silver is more than just a well-titled executive of a mortgage firm. He is one of the crown princes of Shamrock Twitter — a particularly rabid corner of the pro-Liberal partisan social media hives. This particular subset of the Twitterverse is now in something of a bind. The more energetically they point toward Telford’s ethics screen as the right thing to do — the smart step that kept them out of trouble and made this a non-scandal — the more they’re proving the point so many of them have tried to ignore since last month: that the prime minister should employ the device a little more often. 

As for Silver, in 2015, he quit his role as partner at Crestview Strategies, citing his wife's job with the newly elected Liberal government. His transition to Twitter troll was terrible for everyone, and I can't honestly begrudge him taking up some adult work again. 

But it didn’t have to be something directly engaged with the federal government, did it? No doubt he wants to keep working despite his wife’s proximity to power. That’s fair. But wives of powerful men have been doing so for ages, and they have usually managed to do so without turning themselves into headlines. 

Perhaps there is no job Silver could have found that would not have presented an ethical issue. I'm not sure that's true, and if it is, it's a bigger problem. Ottawa is a small town, and getting smaller by the day. Thanks to COVID-19, the Liberals are birthing an octopus economy, one in which almost every major corporate entity will be molested by government free-money feelers. In such a clubby, interconnected country, it may no longer possible for the spouse of a powerfully connected political operator working in government to maintain a high-status, high-influence job of his or her own. 

There was nothing stopping Silver from taking a normal job. Most Canadians work in positions that don't involve dealing with a government agency at the highest levels; but that would have required a sacrifice of status and influence for a few more years while Telford rode out her term. 

If the Liberals are going to continue to centralize the economy at this pace, well, a few uncomfortable personal headlines are fairly cheap as far as cost and consequences go.

Also on The Line, Vancouver-based freelance journalist Barry Rueger has some harsh words for us youngs: “ask yourself if the pensions and services we’re offering are enough for older people that haven’t had the luck to build up healthy RRSPs or real estate holdings. This matters because sooner or later it’s going to be you that needs them.” Me? Never, sir. Nay, I will never age. Check out his argument in: “Oh, so you think you know us olds?”

And, if you haven’t already, do read Katie Lewis’ piece detailing the chaos that has descended at Strathcona Park in Vancouver since a homeless encampment decided to relocate there. It’s been a hellish scene of drugs, violence, threatened children, kidnapped dogs — and recovered teddy bears.

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