Defender of Parliament
From student society president to legislative expert
BY ROSE SIMPSON
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PERRY ZAVITZ
When Rob Walsh (BA’69) retired as law clerk of the House of Commons two years ago, he planned to live a quiet life in Ottawa, walking his dogs, running marathons, and learning to play the piano.
“I told my colleagues that I had no interest in becoming a talking head,” says Walsh. But that changed last spring when Senator Mike Duffy accepted a cheque for $90,000 from Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Harper’s chief of staff.
Suddenly, Walsh became the go-to guy for members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. It was all thanks to Twitter where his handle is toccataprima.
“My daughter convinced me to open a Twitter account about the same time,” he says. “I learned how to do it, made a few tweets, and within 48 hours, I had 150 followers. I carried on making comments about the Duffy-Wright affair; within a month or so I had 900 followers.”
Since then Walsh has become something of a media darling, serving as a parliamentary expert and panellist on CBC’s The National and other political programs. His musings have also appeared regularly in national political columns.
Once an official who shunned the spotlight, he is now an outspoken defender of the institutions of Parliament, even calling out the Harper government for bending and breaking rules. When asked by the CBC’s Terry Milewski what he thought about the Senate scandal, Walsh replied, “I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.”
Thinking back on it, Walsh chuckles. “That’s what you might call an injudicious comment; not the comment of a technician but rather a political comment. Some people on the Hill might have thought I was radioactive.”
His outspoken nature hasn’t always made him very popular with his former colleagues in the House of Commons, the professional clerks and lawyers who avoid controversy at all costs and “try to blend in with the furniture.” But it did make Walsh a hero among the media and short-staffed parliamentarians who come to Ottawa without the legal training to understand its complexities.
When asked about the Senate scandal, Walsh says he isn’t worried about Canada’s democratic future but, like most Canadians, he does wonder what the government was thinking in trying to contain the crisis in the upper chamber.
“We’ve already seen the impact on the credibility of the prime minister. He’s got serious problems publicly.”
But he says Parliament will survive with, or without, the Senate.
“I think you’ll find that the Senate rules are artfully ambiguous and artfully unenforced to the extent that the auditor general’s report will be more damning on the institution, by which time we may be on our way to abolishing it anyway. But that’s the Senate and that’s not where our politics are democratically playing out. None of this is really attaching to the House, although the same drive for exposure for Members of Parliament is afoot. The parties are now outbidding themselves in terms of disclosures about their spending.”
Rob Walsh is a true original. The son of a prominent psychiatrist, English-born, Vancouver-raised, he confounded his private school pals and attended Simon Fraser University in the sixties instead of following the herd to UBC.
“I went to Simon Fraser because it was a new university in 1966,” he explains. “I met with the political science, sociology, and anthropology department, which later became notorious because that’s where the student radicals came from.”
It was at SFU that Walsh got the taste for politics, running for the position of student ombudsman during a turbulent summer when student radical Martin Loney had taken over the student council. After Loney’s group was fired for trying to radicalize a local high school, Walsh seized his moment.
“I was on the sidelines, somewhere in the middle,” he says. “Because I was the ombudsman, I was the only elected person left standing. So it was up to me to chair all the large public meetings in the mall. That’s where I gained prominence among the student population.”
Walsh was able to parlay his newfound star status into a successful campaign for student council president.
“All this time, SFU was the focus of a lot of media attention because it was Canada’s leading student radical university,” he says. “Because of that I became somewhat of a media figure.”
After graduation, Walsh decided to attend law school at UBC “for lack of anything better to do.”
“I came from a medical family. I knew nothing about lawyers. I didn’t really know what lawyers did.”
Walsh practised law in Vancouver before deciding to travel the world on his 10-speed bike. His travels plans were delayed so he took a short-term job at SFU as advisor to the vice-president, academic. A year later he set off for 18 months and then returned to practise law in the Okanagan. He was elected to the school board, served as official agent for a Liberal candidate in the 1984 federal election, and joined the local federal Liberal riding association, soon realizing he didn’t have the stomach or the patience for partisan politics.
“I was just turned off by the superficiality, the short-term thinking, the focus on media,” he says. “At the same time, there was no substantive policy debate.”
Bored with his small-time practice, he applied for a special legislative drafting program at the University of Ottawa. It was a tiny program, just 16 students in all. There Walsh learned a new specialty, but unfortunately there were no jobs in Ottawa, so in the spring of 1987 he took a job in Winnipeg drafting government legislation and helping MLAs draft private member bills. In his spare time, he crossed off another goal on his bucket list: learning French.
“My wife and I had a desire to learn French and we both became avid students of French. Then we became experts on learning French as a second language, figuring out all the things you don’t or should do. It was a private project of ours.”
In what he now describes as the “serendipity of life,” a colleague suggested that Walsh apply to the House of Commons for a job in the Office of the Law Clerk. He was offered a job as general legislative counsel, as long as he could pass the French test.
“So the day rolls around to the test, and I realize everything I have been doing is coming down to this interview,” he recalls. “I think they fell off their chairs because of my age and because I was a Vancouver person from Winnipeg. They probably thought, ‘Where did he get his French?’ ”
But proving he was proficient in French was the least of Walsh’s problems. There were minefields ahead.
When he arrived in Ottawa “there was blood on the floor.” For the first time ever, there was no law clerk, and the office was divided into lawyers who drafted legislation and those who performed legal tasks such as drafting contracts.
The law clerk had been fired after a fight with the clerk, and the place was in shambles burgeoning with bitter lawyers with divided loyalties. Those still left standing didn’t like this new recruit, a middle-aged outsider from British Columbia via Winnipeg who had cut his teeth in courtrooms instead of spending years drafting legislation in the cubicles of the Department of Justice.
However, his colleagues soon discovered that Rob Walsh might have been many things, but he certainly wasn’t wallpaper. After several bitter years and power struggles, Walsh prevailed.
Despite efforts by some of his colleagues on the Hill to get rid of him, Walsh was promoted to the top job as the newly re-amalgamated law clerk of the House of Commons in 1999. In that position, he became the 12th person to hold that job in Canadian history. And he became, arguably, the most powerful law clerk ever to take that chair.
A Thorn in the Paw
Ordinarily the law clerk’s job is quiet, but Walsh’s tenure coincided with minority governments between 2004 and 2011, which meant that opposition MPs made up the majority on parliamentary committees. That gave them power and put Walsh in the extraordinary position of being their chief legal advisor.
The job of law clerk required Walsh to walk a delicate line: to stay impartial and non-partisan. But he was not afraid to offer valuable legal advice as long as the MPs asked the right questions.
It was upon his advice that a House committee was able to keep arms dealer Karlheinz Schreiber in Canada long enough to serve as a committee witness against former prime minister Brian Mulroney concerning a $300,000 cash-for-influence scheme. He also found himself on the wrong side of the Harper government on several occasions after he successfully argued for the release of secret documents and also that ministerial aides could be compelled to appear before committees.
“When I was law clerk, I knew the game. I knew the conflicts, the ugliness, and the loyalties. I saw the scales fall from the eyes of MPs when they found themselves elected and no one would talk to them. To a newcomer, it’s shocking and, in some cases, dispiriting. The game is unpredictable. There are no rules.
“In my view, parliamentarians have the right to their own independent advice so they get more than half the story and are not subjected to government spin. I was not loath to being frank about what a committee’s powers and privileges were.”