Spy watchdog shouldn't work for Manning Centre, NDP says

Chuck Strahl, the former Conservative cabinet minister who now chairs the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), should not also be serving as a director for Calgary's Manning Centre, the NDP says.

Non-partisan federal appointment conflicts with role as director for conservative think tank

Former Conservative cabinet minister Chuck Strahl was appointed as chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee last June. Since leaving federal politics in 2011, he's served as an adviser to B.C.'s Liberal government and joined the Manning Centre as a director. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Chuck Strahl, the former Conservative cabinet minister who now chairs the Security Intelligence Review Committee, should not also be serving as a director for Calgary's Manning Centre, the NDP says.

Alberta NDP MP Linda Duncan rose during Friday's question period in the House of Commons to ask whether the Harper government was investigating after Strahl spoke out in defence of the work of the centre earlier this week.

Calgary developers have donated to the Manning Centre "to support their pro-development candidates," Duncan told the Commons, describing Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi as having "blown the whistle" on the true intent of the donations. Strahl's defence of the centre's activities was inappropriate because in his oversight role chairing the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), he's banned from political activity, she suggested.

"If [Duncan] has concerns with municipal affairs in Calgary, she should raise those with the appropriate municipal authorites," replied Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, filling in for the absent Prime Minister Stephen Harper in question period's early rounds.

"If [the Harper government] is actually committed to [SIRC] being non-partisan, they must take this seriously and not crack jokes," Duncan said next. "Chuck Strahl is obligated to remove himself from political activity, regardless of what it is."

Duncan then asked whether the Canada Revenue Agency would investigate the political activities of the Manning Centre, which is a federally registered non-profit organization, although it does not issue any tax receipts and is not a registered charity.

"Now the NDP is asking the government to interfere directly and instruct the Canada Revenue Agency to do particular investigations. The NDP is trying to ask the government to launch particular witch hunts against particular organizations.

"That would be unlawful, and it would be inappropriate, and it's bizarre that the NDP would suggest it," said Kenney, who repesents a Calgary riding.

Alderman asked about her conservatism

Dimitri Pantazopoulos, who has served as a pollster for Harper's Conservative Party, is now a project director for the Manning Centre's Municipal Governance Project.

In that capacity, he met recently with Calgary Alderman Diane Colley-Urquhart, who says Pantazopoulos asked her questions about how conservative she was and suggested there might be a candidate for the next municipal election this fall who could do a better job at working with "stakeholders" in her riding.

"I'm a tough girl," Colley-Urquhart told reporters Thursday. "It takes a lot to intimidate me."

In a statement to CBC News, Pantazopoulos said that the alderman's "characterization" of their conversation is incorrect. 

"We had a very positive meeting where we discussed various civic issues and we left on very positive terms.  I am puzzled at what might have changed between then and now," he wrote. 

"In point of fact, no candidate from her ward is receiving or has received any training from the Manning Centre."

In its own words, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, which runs a "state of the art training centre" in downtown Calgary, is "dedicated to building Canada’s conservative movement – by strengthening the knowledge, skills, ethical foundations, and networks of political practitioners."

Calgary's mayor this week raised concerns that the Manning Centre, which is supposed to be non-partisan in its approach to offering political training, is instead engaging in partisan politics.

In an interview with Radio-Canada in Calgary earlier this week, Strahl said in his capacity as an incoming director for the Manning Centre that "we don’t run candidates. We don’t run a slate. We’re not interested in that and we won’t do it."

Strahl said recent controversial donations to the centre were made "without strings attached," with the goal of achieving "well-trained, well-equipped candidates for public office."

Political activities by SIRC members under scrutiny

SIRC is the independent, external review body which investigates complaints and reports to Parliament about the performance of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS.)  The recent cuts to the CSIS inspector general's office mean Strahl's committee both fulfils a watchdog role and also gives policy advice to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

Strahl was appointed by the Harper government to chair the oversight committee in June 2012. 

Another former Conservative MP, Deb Grey, was appointed to join Strahl's committee on Monday. The NDP opposes Grey's appointment.

The previous acting chair of SIRC, Carol Skelton, was also a former Conservative cabinet minister. She left in May 2012, leaving the SIRC chair vacant until Strahl's appointment the following month.

No explanation has been given for her departure from the role, which she assumed after Arthur Porter resigned the post in November 2011.

Porter was found to have made political donations to the federal Conservatives while serving on SIRC, which is against SIRC guidelines.

Last month, SIRC executive director Michael Doucet told The Canadian Press that all committee members are briefed by the Privy Council Office on, among other things, the rules that apply to them when it comes to political activities.

Those rules advise against making donations, joining a party or running as a candidate in an election.

Last week, B.C. Liberal Leader Christy Clark, currently campaigning in advance of the provincial election on May 14, suggested that Strahl was among those "very actively helping" her party get re-elected. 

Clark later clarified her statement, saying that although Strahl had helped the B.C. Liberal Party in the past, his current role prevents him from active campaigning.

Strahl spoke to CBC News in the capacity of a "one-time adviser" to Clark's government last August, in the aftermath of a wave of resignations from her cabinet.

Not calling for resignation

The CBC's call to SIRC to obtain more information about the oversight body's policy on outside activities by committee members was not immediately returned.

"I’m not saying that anybody should resign," Duncan told reporters after question period. "I’m saying that particularly after very recent concerns with involvement of people who were the chair of [SIRC], all the more reason that the chair should be circumspect in any kind of potential political engagement and nefarious activity."

"I’m sure that Mr. Strahl is... a very high level, well interested person. I’m sure that he’s going to want to make sure that this is cleared up," the Edmonton MP said. 

"It’s not so much even his obligations. It’s the obligations of the government of Canada because they did appoint him and it’s their obligation to make sure that he abides by those rules," she said. "I think it’s the obligation of the appropriate ministers to follow up with the mayor."