Former NDP staffer leads PR campaign for Energy East pipeline

Leaked document shows close ties between NDP and TransCanada
Photo: Rathika Sitsabaiesan

The revolving door between Parliament and the private sector has swung open once again, as a leaked report from U.S. public relations firm Edelman, prepared for TransCanada as part of a broader strategy to sell its Energy East pipeline project, makes clear that links between Canada’s New Democratic Party and the pipeline company’s PR firm are closer than previously imagined.

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The document, titled “Grassroots Advocacy Vision Document,” reveals that Erin Jacobson, the former deputy director of strategic communications in official opposition leader Thomas Mulcair’s office, has been acting as “Canadian program lead” since joining Edelman’s Energy East team to “provide Canadian-specific advocacy counsel” on June 1, mere days after she left the NDP. Ms. Jacobson has been acting as vice-president of digital public affairs at Edelman, the world’s largest private public relations firm.

Jacobson was an NDP employee from 2008 until Edelman hired her. She worked as constituency communications assistant in the office of former NDP leader Jack Layton before moving up to the party’s communications team, serving first as manager, then director of communications for the federal NDP.

Erin Jacobson, the former deputy director of strategic communications in official opposition leader Thomas Mulcair’s office, has been acting as “Canadian program lead” since joining Edelman’s Energy East team

“While there, she was critical to developing the party’s national brand and identity in a period in which it grew from 36 elected Members of Parliament to 100,” writes Tristan Roy, Edelman’s national digital practice leader, on the company’s blog. “This appointment is the next step in Edelman’s ongoing efforts to play a bigger role in the Canadian public affairs marketplace, with a focus on political campaign style, digital public affairs advocacy.”

Jacobson’s appointment as Energy East’s Canadian program leader only days after her departure from her parliamentary office raises a series of questions and ethical concerns. What benefits have Edelman and TransCanada derived from her access to privileged information? What role did Jacobson play in developing the NDP’s current pro-pipeline policy on Energy East? At what point did she know she would be leaving the party, and where she would be going? Has Jacobson been in touch with her former colleagues or her former boss, and if so have they discussed the pipeline project she is being paid to promote? Ultimately it is yet another story of uncomfortable proximity between Parliament, government and private interests.

Current NDP Deputy Director of Strategic Communications Valérie Dufour told Ricochet by phone that Erin Jacobson was never involved in developing the party’s policy on energy and that she had not contacted any former colleagues on official business since her departure for Edelman. Edelman did not reply to interview requests.

This type of career transition is far from unprecedented, although it is rare for a party like the NDP, which cultivates a grassroots ethos and maintains a policy against floor-crossing, the political equivalent of Jacobson’s transition from working in the public service to serving private interests. We’ve seen it countless times — retired generals lobbying for weapons makers, former political staffers crossing the fence to work in PR.

In 2012 Brad Lavigne, former principal secretary to Jack Layton, left the NDP following the election of Thomas Mulcair. He waited eight months before taking a job in the private sector with Hill+Knowlton Strategies. Anne McGrath, Layton’s chief of staff, also briefly went to work for ENsight, another public relations firm, before returning to the NDP to help the party prepare for the 2015 election.

Although lobbying is regulated, and ministers and their staff must wait two years before going to work as lobbyists, no such restrictions appear to apply to the actions of opposition staff, or to those who bolt for PR firms.

Other recent examples of parlaying public service into lucrative pay cheques abound. In 2011, Stephen Harper’s former media guru Dimitri Soudas famously and abruptly left his post as director of communications and chief spokesman to the Prime Minister of Canada. Since last September, he’s been serving as managing partner at The Stampede Group, a Vancouver-based “business development, international trade, strategic counsel and issues management” firm, according to its website — the kind of business which greatly benefits from having former top-level political operatives on the payroll.

In Quebec, former Premier Lucien Bouchard represented Talisman Energy on the board of the Quebec Oil and Gas Association until February 2013. Current Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard saw no problem with being paid handsomely in Saudi money when he left his post as health minister to act as advisor to Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Rabeeah, who was then the Wahhabi kingdom’s health minister.

Although lobbying is regulated, no such restrictions appear to apply to the actions of opposition staff, or to those who bolt for PR firms.

Along with the Conservatives and Liberals, the NDP support the Energy East pipeline, arguing it will help provide for Canadian energy needs. But that position has not been popular with the party’s base, and increasing pressure has been placed on the party to oppose the pipeline, whose size dwarfs both Northern Gateway and Keystone XL, if for no other reason than to offer a democratic outlet to the many Canadians against it.

Today’s revelations shine a light on an NDP energy policy that sees the party vehemently oppose the nearly dead Northern Gateway and Keystone XL proposals, skirt the question of the Kinder Morgan pipeline and enthusiastically support the Energy East project.

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