It’s an evening like any other. The first item on the Téléjournal is about the controversial Cacouna oil port project. The journalist speaks to citizens in favour of and opposed to the project. Then the spokesperson for Transcanada, the project’s sponsor, appears onscreen.
His talking points aren’t particularly noteworthy, but his face is strangely familiar. I’ve seen it before, but where? For hours, the question nagged at me. Later that evening, it came to me in a flash: we had crossed paths during the summer of 2012 in Quebec, during negotiations between the student movement and the Charest government.
I pulled up the Alberta company’s website and confirmed my suspicions: its Quebec spokesperson was indeed Philippe Cannon, chief of staff to Line Beauchamp during her tumultuous term as Minister of Education, Recreation and Sport. I stopped for a second and realized that prior to holding this post, Beauchamp had been Minister of … Environment! Could the spokesperson for Energy East really have been this close to power before becoming a lobbyist?
Further research revealed that the professional record of Mr. Cannon was impressive: Liberal candidate in 2007, he has served as chief of staff to two Liberal ministers and as press secretary to Beauchamp during her time in the environment portfolio. Today he holds the title of lobbyist and spokesperson for Transcanada, a private company seeking authorization for its marquee project from the same department. This troubling situation brings three questions to mind.
What (real) qualifications does Philippe Cannon possess for this job?
I’m not calling into question the competence of Mr. Cannon, let alone his personal integrity. Indeed, in my few encounters with the man, I’ve been left with a positive impression. The question that begs asking is why his employer put him in charge of such an important lobbying project. No doubt they knew the man and his career path. Obviously his numerous contacts within the Quebec Liberal Party and his internal knowledge of the environment ministry — the same ministry with which Transcanada is now currying favour — didn’t hurt his case.
“People have the right to work!” will no doubt be the response, and obviously I’m not suggesting that former political employees should be obliged to take up residence at a homeless shelter. That said, it would be a simple matter to strengthen the laws governing lobbying to severely limit this sort of abrupt conversion.
Why is no one talking about it?
True to form, Québec Solidaire MNA Amir Khadir vigorously denounced the close ties between Philippe Cannon and the Couillard government. His indignation obviously left journalists indifferent, as his cri du cœur merited little more than a brief mention at the end of a few articles. Should we conclude from this that the media find this situation normal? They must employ a strange definition of the public interest to consider this information unworthy of proper coverage.
Or has such unhealthy proximity become too commonplace to warrant coverage? If that is the case we should be worried, as it seems to indicate a lack of depth and a modicum of naiveté. In any case, this silence speaks volumes. Our media have clearly resigned themselves to this revolving door between the private sector and the Quebec government, and in so doing have failed in their duty to both journalism and democracy.
Political power subservient to business interests?
In a decision dated Sept. 23, a justice of the Quebec Superior Court questioned the motives of Environment Minister David Heurtel, who provided a certificate of authorization to Transcanada, even though the Alberta company had not provided all the necessary documents.
“He changed his position and signed the certificate of authorization. Nothing in the evidence submitted explains that reversal,” wrote an incredulous Justice Claudine Roy. Is it possible that Mr. Cannon and the 13 other lobbyists employed by Transcanada had something to do with the minister’s abrupt change of heart?
This case goes beyond the fate of Energy East or Transcanada. It reveals once again a dual proximity between the worlds of politics and business. The first form of proximity is concrete: it is well known that the titans of industry maintain close ties to those in power, and Cannon’s case shows how small a world it really is, a select network where players circulate rapidly from one side of the table to the other.
But beyond this cozy relation between our leaders and the scions of big business, it is their ideological homogeneity that disturbs me most. In the end it is their conception of the state that allows both Philippe Cannon and former Hydro-Québec Chair, now lobbyist, André Caillé to pass from the public to private sectors, and back again, in the blink of an eye.
As they pass between these sectors, they assimilate, intentionally or otherwise, the neoliberal vision of the role of the state within society: to create the most favourable business climate possible.
The fact that the right-hand man to an education minister who wanted to increase tuition fees by 75 per cent is, less than two years later, the public face of a foreign company that wants to convince the Quebec government to authorize a high-risk project in the St. Laurence is not just an anecdote or an isolated incident, it is a symbol.
Many laughed at the students in 2012, when certain “radicals” (sic) said that their struggle against tuition fees was also directed at the political and economic elite who control Quebec society.
“Old rhetoric from the 70s!” scoffed the “chattering classes,” as Chantal Hébert likes to call them. This troubling affair demonstrates that we should have listened better, and that those concerned with the rule of law were wrong to blame the students for its deterioration.
One last question: what if the political class itself represents the greatest threat to the credibility of our political institutions?