A senior Liberal from Quebec resigns, accused of abusing his position as campaign co-chair by providing insider information to a client. The Commissioner of Lobbying is asked to investigate.

"These allegations are precisely the kind of backroom dealing that undermines Canadians' trust in their democracy," an opposition MP writes to the Commissioner.     

Déjà vu all over again?

The Conservatives and NDP certainly hope so. They've pounced on the resignation of Liberal campaign co-chair Dan Gagnier following the release of emails he wrote to TransCanada Corp. about how to lobby a possible new government in Ottawa after Oct. 19.

For the opposition parties, any opportunity to remind voters of the gang who brought you the sponsorship scandal is a gift from the political gods in the last week of a hard-fought campaign.

Whether the Gagnier resignation (Gagniergate anyone?) will slow down the Liberals' apparent momentum won't be known until Monday night. But the incident is a useful window into the often murky world of political lobbying in Ottawa, and might eventually prove to be a catalyst for some useful discussions about our lobbying rules.

Dan who?

So who is Dan Gagnier?

Although unknown to most Canadians until this incident blew up on Wednesday night, Gagnier has had a distinguished career in the private and public sectors. He bears no resemblance to the sordid Liberal bagmen who populated the sponsorship scandal.

Dan Gagnier and Energy East

Dan Gagnier has stepped down as the Liberal Party's national campaign co-chair after it the Conservatives said he was advising TransCanada Pipelines on how to lobby a new government over its propose Energy East pipeline project. (liberal.ca/Canadian Press)

Gagnier spent many years as a senior civil servant, and is likely the only man in Canadian history to have served as chief of staff to two premiers (David Peterson and Jean Charest) in two provinces (Ontario and Quebec). 

He also spent 13 years at Alcan, and has many ties to Canada's energy industry. He was the president of the Energy Policy Institute of Canada (EPIC), a non-profit think tank funded by energy companies whose "sole purpose is to develop a comprehensive, pan-Canadian approach to energy."

And since last spring, he has been under contract to TransCanada, providing communications counselling and advice on how to navigate the various political scenarios that could emerge following the election. It was in this context that he wrote the ill-fated emails that got him and the Liberals into hot water.

His advice was relatively anodyne. Among other things, he told TransCanada they would need to move quickly with a new Liberal or NDP government to advance their energy strategy. This echoed a brief he co-wrote on behalf of EPIC in 2011 that declared, "Canada is on the cusp of becoming a global energy leader if it can quickly craft and adopt a new Canadian energy strategy."

Lobby law

But did he contravene Canada's lobbying act? That's a determination that will ultimately be made by Lobbying Commissioner Karen Shepherd. The NDP refers to Gagnier as a "high-level lobbyist." The Liberals insist Gagnier broke no rules, and it appears unlikely he did, because he is not a lobbyist.

In Ottawa, designations matter, and according to the federal lobbying registry, Gagnier last registered as a lobbyist for EPIC in August, 2014. His only other lobbying activity was for Alcan, and that ended in 2007. So rules governing how lobbyists should behave during campaigns likely don't apply to someone who is advising a client how to lobby, as opposed to actually lobbying.

But let's play this out as if he currently were a registered lobbyist. Then Gagnier might well find himself in some trouble.

Last June, the commissioner issued a "reminder" to lobbyists about what they could and could not do during an election campaign. Rule 8 of the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct states, "Lobbyists should not place public office holders in a conflict of interest by proposing or undertaking any action that would constitute an improper influence on a public office holder."

The concern is these actions might create a "sense of obligation" on the part of the politician towards the lobbyist, and even "temporarily deregistering" as a lobbyist may not be enough to make those concerns go away.

And among the activities the commissioner believes could create an undue conflict of interest is "serving as a campaign chair or in another strategic role on a campaign team."

So, a lobbyist doing what Gagnier was doing for the Liberals as campaign co-chair would seem to contravene the code.  Except it's not quite that simple.

In a rather interesting twist, the code also declares that "when a federal election is called, members of Parliament cease to be public office holders." Only the prime minister, senators, cabinet ministers and their staff retain their status as designated public office holders during a campaign.

So how could a lobbyist exercise "improper influence on a public office holder," an opposition party leader for example, when that leader is technically no longer a public office holder?

Some clarity might be useful.

Political vs. legal mistakes

In a statement, the lobbying commissioner announced she will be conducting an investigation into the issues raised by the NDP about Gagnier. The investigation won't be concluded until well after the election, when most people will likely have forgotten who Gagnier is.

The mistakes in this affair were probably more political than legal. 

The Liberals claim Gagnier was not advising them on energy policy, but they probably should have thought twice about putting an industry insider so close to Trudeau.

And why Gagnier didn't wait until after election to offer his advice to his client TransCanada is bit of a mystery. He is no political neophyte and must have understood how bad the optics would be if the emails were leaked.

And while he might technically not have been the "high-level lobbyist" the NDP claims he was, this incident does remind us that the Canadian political landscape is littered with men and women of all parties who wear two hats: paid lobbyists and political strategists.

It's true for all the campaigns. Brad Lavigne, a senior adviser on the NDP campaign, was employed by the giant Ottawa lobbying firm Hill and Knowlton until he left in May to join the NDP campaign. At Hill and Knowlton he had been listed as a registered lobbyist for several clients, including in 2013-14, BHP Billiton, the world's largest mining company with extensive Canadian holdings. The Conservatives also have lobbyists among their campaign advisers.

Those strategists have to do something between elections to make a living. But when the writs are dropped, keeping those two roles apart requires careful vigilance.