Leaders keep friends at a distance

If Andrew Scheer is serious about becoming prime minister this fall, he might want to spend the summer ditching his friends.

It’s been a theme of this year in politics, for Liberal and Conservative leaders.

Justin Trudeau has been attacked this week for failing to permanently jettison his longtime friend and adviser Gerald Butts.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has rid himself of his old friend and chief of staff, Dean French, but not the controversies that have erupted out of their cronyism.

The mere suggestion that Butts was back in the Liberal fold — after leaving his job as Trudeau’s principal secretary in the midst of the SNC-Lavalin saga this past winter — has prompted days of political angst and analysis.

The story of Trudeau and Butts, and their relationship dating back to their days together as students at McGill University, has become a tale of the high cost of friendship in the political world — in Ottawa, at least.

Then again, some forms of political friendship still pay well. At Queen’s Park, each day seems to bring another revelation about how French, his friends and family have been doing just fine by the Ford government.

A huge investigative piece in the Globe and Mail this week detailed the lucrative lives of French-friendly lobbyists, at two firms in particular: Rubicon Strategy and Loyalist Public Affairs.

Several of the principals at these firms are very familiar names in Ottawa — insiders from the old Stephen Harper government, including one of the former prime minister’s old communications directors, Kory Teneycke.

Clearly, these former federal Conservatives do not subscribe to Harper’s philosophy about friends and lobbying, which he articulated in a speech to the Empire Club in Toronto just a couple of months before he became prime minister.

“I have told my own MPs and parliamentary staffers that if they have ambitions to use public office to advance their own interests or get rich lobbying a future Conservative government, they had better make different plans, or leave,” he told a well-heeled crowd at the Royal York hotel in late 2005.

It seems the exit route ran straight to Queen’s Park, where the lobbying rules are slightly less stringent than in Ottawa.

In Ottawa, this is not OK — former campaign officials are expected to refrain from any lobbying for jobs immediately after their candidates win. Actually, if you’re in power on Parliament Hill, the fewer friends you have, the better.

Politics is a job best suited to friend-makers and extroverts, so it has always seemed odd to me, if not outright oxymoronic, to demand that politicians keep friends at arm’s length once they’re in power. Who are they supposed to hire and consult? Enemies?

Nonetheless, and with the exception of Butts and chief of staff Katie Telford, Trudeau did go to some lengths to avoid being surrounded by longtime Liberal pals when he came into office.

He expelled veteran senators from caucus, filled hundreds of staff positions with political rookies and adopted a cautious, even chilly relationship with well-known Liberal lobbyists around town.

Friends of Scheer, then, should consider themselves warned. Ottawa is not Queen’s Park, and friends on Parliament Hill are more likely to be seen as liabilities than wealth enhancers.

Would-be prime ministers might remember that old Harry Truman line from the 20th century, just as applicable in Canada’s capital today: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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