Monday, April 10, 2006

if this isn't conflict of interest, then what is it ...

Grits hammer away at Defence Minister's former role
Globe and Mail Update, 10/04/06

Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor was put on the defensive in the House of Commons again Monday in connection with his former role as a lobbyist for global weapons manufacturers.

“The Defence Minister's rap sheet on working for the arms industry is ‘as long as your arm,'” Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh said during Question Period. “What is worse, the Conservative Platform looks like a tailored wish list for most of his former clients.”

Last week Mr. O'Connor also came under attack on the issue. Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded then that that the Defence Minister is in full compliance with federal ethics guidelines, as well as the new, tougher rules now being introduced by the Conservative government.

Monday Mr. O'Connor said categorically: “I have no conflicts.”

Following his retirement from the military as a brigadier general and before his election in 2004, Mr. O'Connor worked as a lobbyist with Hill & Knowlton Canada.

In that capacity, according to federal records, he lobbied for a Who's Who of defence firms.

Between 2001 and 2004, Mr. O'Connor was the registered lobbyist for Airbus Military. In that capacity, defence sources say, he would have received a retainer in he range of $15,000 to $20,000 a month, and had extensive contacts with company officials, including regular product briefings.

Airbus is currently developing the A400M aircraft, which is a contender for a pending $4.6-billion tactical airlift contract, as well as the C295 fixed-wing rescue aircraft, one of several contenders for a planned $3.4-billion purchase of new search-and-rescue planes.

Mr. O'Connor also formerly lobbied for BAE Systems, Raytheon Canada, General Dynamics Canada and Stewart & Stevenson.

All four companies are currently bidding on major pending Canadian defence procurement contracts. BAE Systems. Raytheon and General Dynamics are all bidding for a piece of the Defence Department's $2.1-billion joint support ship program. BAE is also seeking the $900-million maintenance contract for DND's four Victoria-class diesel submarines.

Stewart & Stevenson, meantime, is one of four contenders for a pending $1.1-billion procurement of new medium-sized military trucks.

The Opposition Liberals have made no secret of their intention to make Mr. O'Connor's defence industry links a key line of attack in Question Period.

The issue will likely come to a head with the procurement of new military aircraft, currently the subject of an intense internal debate at the Defence Department.

Mr. O'Connor has said categorically that his first priority is to buy strategic lift. During the election campaign, he promised to buy three such aircraft. The only one currently available is Boeing's C-17 Globemaster.

The former Liberal government, following a determined lobbying effort from Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier, had decided to purchase 15 smaller tactical transports to replace its fleet of 31 aging Hercules C130s. This $4.6-billion contract was widely believed to have been intended for Lockheed Martin, currently marketing an updated version of the C130.

Airbus's A400M is considered a long shot for the contract because it is still in development, and not expected to fly until 2008, whereas DND's need is urgent.

Should the government decide to overrule Gen. Hillier and buy C17s rather than C130s, defence industry sources say, Airbus could be the eventual beneficiary, because the new C17s would ease immediate pressure on the old C130 fleet, allowing the government to put off the tactical purchase until Airbus's plane is flying.

As he did last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper rose to defend his minister. Mr. Harper said that Mr. O'Connor, as a former member or the armed forces, is “very knowledgeable on the defence industry.”

Mr. Harper also vowed that “the spending plans of the government for national defence are there to ensure that our men and women in uniform have the best equipment possible.”