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First day, first scandal 

[PoliticsWatch Updated 8:05 p.m. February 6, 2006]

OTTAWA  — It didn't take long for the new Conservative government to become embroiled in scandal. 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's unusual decision to appoint a floor-crossing Liberal MP, an un-elected senator and a former defence industry lobbyist to his first cabinet put a cloud over his first day in office and are now the subject of a complaint to the ethics commissioner. 

Jaws dropped on Monday morning when David Emerson, a former Liberal cabinet minister in Paul Martin's government, showed up at Rideau Hall for the cabinet swearing-in ceremony. 

Emerson, who won his Vancouver-Kingsway riding just two weeks ago after campaigning as a Liberal, will now sit in the Conservative cabinet as the trade minister. 

The MP's defection to the Conservatives appears be the quickest political conversion after an election in Canadian history. 

"I was consistently impressed with David Emerson," Harper explained to reporters after the swearing-in ceremony. 

"He is a man of great intelligence."

"I asked David Emerson to join Canada's new government and he accepted."

Harper's comments are being viewed as hypocritical since the Conservatives were up in arms last spring when Belinda Stronach crossed over to the Liberals and was put into cabinet. 

At that time, Harper was asked what he thought about MPs who crossed the floor and why did most join the Liberals and not his party.

"We don't go out of our way to romance MPs to get them to cross the floor," Harper said. "The Liberals will do anything to win. We are trying to create a principled party where people act in a principled way.

"We're fairly cautious about encouraging party jumping because I think that's the kind of thing that generates cynicism and frankly when somebody jumps once you're not sure to trust them that they won't jump the next time.

"So I will always handle with an extraordinary degree of caution."

As trade minister, Emerson will be Canada's point man on the softwood lumber file. 

Before entering politics in 2004, Emerson was an executive with the lumber company Canfor. 

He also was among the Liberal cabinet ministers who used some of the most intemperate language about the U.S. during the dispute, something Harper had criticized the Martin government for. 

During a scrum at the Liberal caucus retreat in the summer, Emerson compared the Americans to hockey goons. 

Speaking with reporters after a cabinet meeting, Emerson said he decided to join the Tories because it was the best way to serve his constituents, who voted him in as a Liberal. 

"I got into politics and political life at the urging of Paul Martin. I was not a partisan, I was not a Liberal at that time.

"Mr. Martin has now made his decision to move. I was approached by Mr. Harper and asked whether I would consider serving the people of Canada in his government and I therefore had a decision to make."

Emerson's decision even shocked the Liberals. 

The leader of the opposition, Bill Graham, said Emerson did not even inform Paul Martin or himself about his decision.

"I watched Mr. Emerson walk in the room this morning," said Graham. "Nobody knew anything about any of this until this morning. That's very clear."

Harper may get an earful from his caucus at their first post-election meeting in Ottawa on Tuesday morning. 

Even pro-Conservative blogs are already blasting Harper on his first day on the job. 

"This is flat out wrong," wrote popular blogger Greg Staples. "On the very first day of the Conservative government they have left the 'meet the new boss, same as the old boss' tune in everyone's head."

Also raising eyebrows is Harper's decision to appoint a party organizer, Michael Fortier, to the Senate so he can sit in cabinet as public works minister and as political minister for Montreal. 

The Conservatives failed to elect any MPs from the three major urban areas in Canada - Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

But Fortier's appointment also makes Harper look hypocritical, having campaigned on a promise to only appoint senators who win elections organized by the provinces. 

Fortier said he will run in the next federal election in Montreal, but has already ruled out running in any byelection that may occur in the ensuing period.

As well, Harper campaigned on the theme of accountability. Fortier will head up one of the largest government departments and the one that was involved in the sponsorship scandal. 

However, as a senator, Fortier will not be grilled by opposition MPs during question period. 

Also coming under fire is Harper's selection of retired general Gordon O'Connor as defence minister. 

In the eight years before being elected to Parliament in 2004, O'Connor was registered lobbyist with Hill and Knowlton Canada. 

The lobbyist registry shows O'Connor had more than a dozen leading defence contractors on his list of clients, including some that have large procurements pending. 

Graham said while he respects O'Connor's military career, his past lobbying activity has to be answered for, given the Tories' campaign promises to toughen up rules on government officials becoming lobbyists. 

The Tories put in place a five-year ban on ministers, ministerial staff and senior government officials preventing them from becoming lobbyists. 

"It seems to me rather curious that we have gone reverse in this circumstance and we've taken someone who was a lobbyist and put him in the cabinet," Graham noted.

Graham said it looks like the government will have a difficult time explaining O'Connor's appointment and his party will make the Tories explain as "specific cases" arise.

Speaking with reporters after his first cabinet meeting, O'Connor said he does not plan to recuse himself from any files. 

"I do not have any links to any company whatsoever," he said.

When asked if he had a bias for any of the companies he lobbied for, O'Connor said, "No, just watch me."

Harper also defended O'Connor's appointment. 

"Having worked in an industry in the past does not constitute a conflict of interest in the present," he said.

Meanwhile, the public interest group Democracy Watch is filing a complaint to the ethics commissioner about all three controversial cabinet appointments. 

Democracy Watch had given Harper high marks during the election campaign for his accountability act, but are already disillusioned with the new PM.

"New Prime Minister Stephen Harper has shot himself in the foot, if not the head, on the government ethics issue with some of his Cabinet appointments as they are clearly hypocritical and reveal a very weak regard for election promises and federal ethics rules," said Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch in a statement.

Also interesting is some of the high profile Conservatives who were excluded from cabinet. 

People who were considered shoo-ins were left out, such as Jay Hill and Diane Ablonczy. Those two are among the original Reform Party MPs first elected to the House of Commons in 1993, who sat on the opposition benches for over 12 years. 

And another group of younger MPs who were just a few years ago touted as the future of the Conservative party were also left out. 

Alberta MPs James Rajotte, Jason Kenney and Rahim Jaffer were left out because of a numbers game in Alberta. 

And 29-year-old, bilingual B.C. MP James Moore was on almost every observer's cabinet list, but his seat at the cabinet table was filled by Emerson among others.

In total, Harper named just six MPs who sat in the Canadian Alliance caucus just two years ago to his cabinet - Gary Lunn, Stockwell Day, Chuck Strahl, Monte Solberg, Carol Skelton and Vic Toews.

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