In February this year, Mary Campbell drew our attention to a video clip of New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, known affectionately as AOC, questioning witnesses at a hearing by the US House Oversight and Reform Committee. AOC was pointing out how much members of Congress can legally get away with, even when it looks an awful lot like conflict of interest, and things that sanctimonious westerners would likely label corruption were they happening in another part of the world.
Campbell’s piece was all about conflict of interest, and how prevalent it is in our country and province, even when it’s all perfectly legal.
She takes a close look at Iris Communications, “the Halifax-based lobbying firm headed by Kirby McVicar, former chief of staff to Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil,” and at the revolving door between government and the private sector, as represented by Iris Communications.
McVicar left McNeil’s employ in November 2015 and claims to have started Iris Communications in November 2015. (This isn’t actually true — in April 2016, he was working for Louisbourg Seafoods, a gig not mentioned on his LinkedIn CV and, according to the Joint Stocks Registry, Iris Communications was incorporated and registered on 27 September 2017). But the point is — he could have started Iris Communications the same month he left McNeil’s employ. Nova Scotia apparently has no “cooling off” period before high-ranking political staff can leap into phone booths and emerge as lobbyists.
And if you’re thinking, “It’s a communications firm, it’s not like he’s trading on his time in the Premier’s Office,” let me quote McVicar himself:
“As a Partner of Iris Communications Inc I have spent the last number of years assisting numerous clients navigate both the provincial and federal bureaucracy in a professional low-key manner. I would suggest I should not be seen for who I know, but more for what I know.
Prior to my Iris Communications work, I was Chief of Staff for five years to Leader of the Opposition and the Premier of Nova Scotia where I acted as a senior advisor. I also worked with Cabinet Ministers and Deputy Ministers to develop and implement Government policy objectives, strategies and operating plans.”
One of McVicar’s two partners at Iris Communications is another recent émigré from the upper echelons of McNeil’s government. He is Trevor Floyd, who was Executive Assistant to Randy Delorey when Delorey was Nova Scotia’s Minister of Finance and Treasury Board from July 2015 to June 2017, and for the two years previous to that when Delorey was Minister of Environment.
Both Delorey and Floyd are from Antigonish, and Floyd’s family has strong Liberal affiliations. According to journalist Andrew MacDonald writing in the MacDonald Notebook, Floyd’s father is a “longtime member of the Liberal rank and file,” while his sister is a former national Liberal strategist.
After leaving government in June 2017, Floyd joined the communications company M5 Public Affairs, where he spent a year and a half before joining McVicar at Iris Communications in November 2018.
Immediately thereafter, in the first week of December 2018, both McVicar and Floyd registered as lobbyists for Northern Pulp with — yep — the provincial government they knew so well.
AllNovaScotia.com broke the story, and the CBC’s Michael Gorman took it further, pointing out that the registry was outdated and flawed, and that the key words “Northern Pulp” failed to turn up McVicar and Floyd as its lobbyists. Business minister Geoff MacLellan said that would be fixed when the registries were modernized.
A year later, it hasn’t been. It is only by typing “McVicar,” “Floyd,” or “Iris communications” into the search function that I find them listed as Northern Pulp lobbyists. Their activities are described as:
Assisting Northern Pulp with outreach to government and government departments to ensure the continued operation of Northern Pulp.
Their lobby targets are:
Agriculture and Fisheries, Finance, Transportation and Public Works, Environment and Labour, Natural Resources, Treasury and Policy Board, other.
And also: the “Premier’s Office.”
So there it is. Two men who have intimate and privileged knowledge of the inner workings of the Nova Scotia premier’s office, Department of Environment, Department of Finance and Treasury Board, of who’s who and what’s what at the uppermost levels of political power in the province, are now able to profit from that insider knowledge by pushing the interests of Northern Pulp.
Floyd stumps for Northern Pulp with the feds
Trevor Floyd has this to say about his connections and expertise on his LinkedIn page (the italics are mine):
Strong knowledge of government and political processes acquired through over a decade of providing research, analysis and strategic advice to senior government leaders on highly sensitive issues. Has established and cultivated a robust network that includes not only key federal and provincial players at both the bureaucratic and political level, but many key players from the private sector as well [sic]
Has had a key leadership role in supporting elected officials, providing strategic council and a respected voice on fast-moving, complex and politically charged issue [sic].
Over eight years with the federal government at both the political and bureaucratic level in Ottawa and Halifax, gaining expertise and networks in a variety of areas, including fisheries management; strategic policy development; climate change and clean energy; environmental assessment and permitting; and government, stakeholder and First Nation consultation.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that almost as soon as he joined Iris Communications, Floyd also started lobbying for Northern Pulp with the federal government, registering on December 10, 2018.
The “subject matter details” of his federal lobbying assignment on behalf of Northern Pulp are telling (again the italics are mine):
Assisting Northern Pulp with outreach to pertinent elected officials and government departments to discuss environmental approvals and the continued operation of the Mill.
Floyd, who holds a BSc and MSc from St. Francis Xavier University, is also a former student of Jim Williams, the senior research professor from St. FX who penned an opinion piece more than 6,000 words long and made three videos downplaying risks of Northern Pulp effluent, which were published by the Chronicle Herald on Saturday December 14 (about which the Halifax Examiner commented here).
In his op-ed, Williams states that Northern Pulp effluent is “not toxic,” and:
If we could guarantee that future Northern Pulp effluent is treated to the same level as it is at present, there is considerable evidence that it could be released via the proposed pipeline/diffuser system with no significant impact on commercial fisheries, or on the receiving coastal ecosystem.
Northern Pulp is now using William’s message as its own PR.
Given that he was Floyd’s BSc Honours advisor at St. FX in 2002, I wrote to Williams to ask about that connection, whether it had anything to do with his decision to contribute an opinion piece to the Chronicle Herald, and how he came to write it.
Williams replied that he wrote it because he was “increasingly concerned with the characterization of the quality of the treated effluent, and the perceived impact on fisheries.” He said he originally wrote three articles, each 2,000 words long, and submitted them “blind” to the Chronicle Herald, and that he was not paid “a cent for the article.”
As for whether it had anything to do with his connection with Floyd, this is Williams’ complete unedited reply to that question:
Trevor Floyd was one of four Aquatic resources students from 2002 with whom I stay in contact. As is the case for all four, I attended their weddings, and get updates from them on births, jobs, etc. I taught trevor about Boat harbour in 2000, as I have included it as an infamous example of environmental racism in Nova Scotia every year since 1997. Trevor and I have stayed in contact, and he was part of the team that negotiated the Boat Harbour act. I text or email him every couple of weeks, and we have certainly discussed Boat harbour, but we also talk about his leafs and my habs, raising kids, striped bass flyfishing, and news about the other aquatic resources students. I knew he had formed a communications company, and that NP [Northern Pulp] was a client of his. He knew that I was intending to submit an op-ed piece to the herald, but he in no way had anything to do with my decision to submit the article, nor did he have any input on the contents of the article, or work with me in any way. I’m sorry, I know that the whole story of provincial involvement with the mill, and regulation, and environmental assessment is a tangled web, but with respect to my article, there is really nothing more here than meets the eye. I wasn’t paid or supported by np [Northern Pulp], forestry, consulting companies, or any communications company to do this article. I sincerely believe that the toxicity of the effluent has been misrepresented, as has the potential impact of the new treatment facility on fisheries.
Williams provided prompt and detailed replies to all the questions I sent him, but Trevor Floyd, the communications professional, has so far not bothered to acknowledge the email I sent to his Iris Communications address.
Is government paying for NP lobbying?
Details provided on the federal lobbyist registry about Floyd’s client, Northern Pulp, reveal that in the previous financial year ending December 31, 2017, it received $254,390.93 from the Government of Nova Scotia, and that it expected to receive more funding in the current financial year.
That amount certainly didn’t begin to represent the amount that Public Accounts reports that the Nova Scotia government gave to Northern Pulp in the fiscal year for 2017 (or 2018 or 2019 either). I’ve summarized the Public Accounts figures, and the amount that Northern Pulp still owes the people of the province from loans it received between 2009 and 2013, here:
So what is the $254,390.93 that the federal lobbyist registry says Northern Pulp received from the province? Does this mean the provincial government funds Northern Pulp to hire lobbyists, or that it funds Iris Communications to lobby the federal government for Northern Pulp? And if so, how could it have been provided for the fiscal year ending 2017, when Trevor Floyd wasn’t registered on the federal lobby until December 2018?
Perplexed, I wrote to media relations with the lobby registry to get clarification. This is the reply I received:
Lobbyists must report all funding received from any government level regarding grants, non-repayable contributions and any other non-repayable funding. We do not have further details as to the purpose of the funding received by Northern Pulp from the Government of Nova Scotia. This information would need to be confirmed by Northern Pulp or the Government of Nova Scotia.
I’ve long since given up getting any reply from Northern Pulp on anything, but I hoped that Gary Andrea, spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Department of Finance and Treasury Board, would clarify the issue for me, let me know whether the provincial government funded Northern Pulp’s lobbying of the federal government, and if so, which department. This is the reply I received:
…we will not be commenting on anything to do with Northern Pulp until after a decision is made by the regulator [the environment minister decides on Northern Pulp’s new effluent treatment facility].
I wrote back:
Thanks for getting back to me, but this is a question that has nothing to do with the environmental assessment process. It is about funding from the government of Nova Scotia, so I can’t fathom why there would be a dome of silence over this question!? Is there at least a statement to explain the moratorium on answers to questions? (I don’t think I was asking for a comment.)
… thanks for your follow up, but our response below [actually above] stands.
So there we are — again.
Nova Scotians have provided Northern Pulp with millions of dollars in the past three years, are still owed $85.5 million from earlier loans, and are on the hook for all kinds of costs related to Northern Pulp because of agreements signed by earlier governments, but they are not permitted to know if their tax dollars are going to pay for Northern Pulp to lobby the federal government.
Back to that flawed provincial lobbyist registry; another name that doesn’t show up when you search for “Northern Pulp” is that of Bernie Miller, who was in fact a registered lobbyist for Northern Pulp from 2009 until 2014.
Unlike McVicar and Floyd, who stepped out of government through the revolving door, Miller stepped in from outside. In 2014, Premier McNeil plucked Miller from private law practice at McInnes Cooper where he was Managing Partner and CEO, appointing him deputy minister of the Office of Priorities and Planning. In 2017, McNeil made Miller deputy minister in the Office of Strategy Management, and on January 1, 2018 gave him a second high-profile position by naming him deputy minister of the Department of Business.
Miller has special knowledge of the Northern Pulp file and the predicament the province is in because of legal obligations it made in 1995 to Scott Maritimes, which owned the mill then. Miller appears to have helped negotiated a set of agreements, including a crucial Memorandum of Understanding and an extremely broad Indemnity Agreement for the mill, which were signed by the Liberal government of Premier John Savage and that leave the province open to many liabilities (which the Halifax Examiner covers here and the NS Court of Appeal details here). Miller’s signature is on the Indemnity Agreement, as a witness for the mill.
CBC reported in 2014 that Miller consulted the province’s conflict of interest commissioner before he left McInnes Cooper, and that the commissioner said he would be in a conflict of interest. Nevertheless, according to the CBC, Premier McNeil said that Miller’s conduct had been beyond reproach, and that while he had been appointed to handle the government’s most sensitive files, he wouldn’t be touching the Northern Pulp issue.
Hard to imagine, but who’s to argue about what happens behind all those closed doors, once they revolve?
And then there is John Hamm
So what names do turn up when you search for “Northern Pulp” lobbyists on the provincial registry? The answer is seven men whose registrations date back to 2009. Five have been terminated, and two are listed as “inactive.”
One of those “inactive” registered lobbyists is not just any-old-body.
His name is John H. Hamm of Stellarton, who became a Northern Pulp lobbyist in April 2010 and for whom the last date of any changes is June 14, 2018. Hamm is, of course, Nova Scotia’s former Progressive Conservative premier (1999 – 2006), and chair of the Northern Resources Nova Scotia Corporation, the umbrella for a family of companies related to Northern Pulp, and part of the Paper Excellence Group, which in turn is connected through its owner, Jackson Widjaja, to the massive corporate empire of the billionaire Widjaja family of Indonesia.
It was the government of John Hamm that in 2002 extended the mill’s lease for the use of Boat Harbour for its effluent to 2030, something that could cost the people of Nova Scotia dearly. Northern Pulp has said it will demand compensation for the loss of the use of Boat Harbour after January 31, 2020, as stipulated by the Boat Harbour Act passed by McNeil’s Liberal government with support from the two other political parties in 2015.
In 2017, I interviewed former NDP natural resources minister, Charlie Parker for the book I was writing, The Mill – Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest, and asked him about the lobbying that went on during his time in office. He said that even when citizens were organizing and protesting the mill pollution, he was lobbied hard by the CEO and mill management. In the book, I recounted what he had to say:
All three MLAs here in the county, no matter what stripe they were … were heavily lobbied by management,” he tells me. Parker says that each time the mill changed hands, first when it was acquired by Blue Wolf and Atlas in 2008, and later when it was sold to Paper Excellence, John Hamm introduced the new management team to the government and minister of the day.
Earlier this year Hamm told the Halifax Examiner that he didn’t regret extending the Boat Harbour lease. His apparent lack of concern for the immense suffering that the extension has caused Pictou Landing First Nation, for how it has compromised the province’s role as regulator, and how much it could cost the province, is truly astounding.
Or maybe not.
Maybe that’s just the kind of thing that happens when you go through the revolving door, step away from a privileged position in government and use all the connections and knowledge you accrued while on the public payroll, to earn still more money lobbying for private interests.
How much all this this influence from insiders turned lobbyists affects government decisions — like the one the environment minister has to make on Northern Pulp’s new effluent treatment facility by December 17 — is a question that needs to be asked. And answered.
Cover photo: Northern Pulp Mill. Photo courtesy Gerry Farrell.
Joan Baxter is author of The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest.