Firing him would have been easy. Few people outside of Mississauga, Ont., had heard of Bob Dechert before he rolled the dice on his career by trading amorous emails with a correspondent with the Xinhua news agency, Communist China’s official mouthpiece. Thanks in no small part to the 53-year-old MP’s own giddy prose—“I really like the picture of you by the water with your cheeks puffed” fits nicely into a single tweet—the story quickly found legs: by the middle of last week, the reporter, Shi Rong, was on front pages across the country.
Dechert downplayed the exchanges as “flirtatious.” “The friendship remained innocent and simply that—a friendship,” he said on his personal website, which also features a picture of him with his long-time wife, Ruth Clark. But the image of a middle-aged man in the throes of a grade-school crush has stuck, overshadowing Dechert’s little-known status as a party fixer that insiders believe may have spared him relegation to the backbenches. Messages sent from Shi’s inbox—apparently by her angry husband—revealed not only that the married MP had professed his love for the journalist, but that Shi had sought a divorce to pursue her new relationship. “To continue her love affair with this member of Parliament,” the jilted man typed in a message sent to all 240 of his wife’s contacts, “Shi Rong pitilessly asked to end her marriage while stationed overseas.”
For a Conservative government that once talked tough about Beijing’s espionage program, it was more than a bit of domestic unpleasantness. Xinhua is a state-owned news agency whose foreign bureaus have in the past served as less-than-convincing cover for Chinese spies. “It’s an open secret that many of the Chinese reporters stationed overseas actually work for Beijing’s Ministry of State Security,” says Li Ding, deputy editor-in-chief at Chinascope, a Washington-based agency that monitors and analyzes Chinese media. “Westerners think of Xinhua as a news service. In fact, it is a government agency.”
Dechert, meanwhile, is a credible target for a covert operative: as a parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, he enjoys access to privileged information about Canada’s relationship with the United States—material of obvious interest to Beijing. How much, if any, he shared with his paramour is not really the point, says Nelson Wiseman, a political scientist at the University of Toronto. “The issue is, should this guy be a parliamentary secretary? I mean, he screwed up royally.”
How, then, is Dechert hanging on to his appointment? Part of the answer may lie in Dechert’s unheralded role in getting the Conservatives back into power. No mere backbencher, the MP for Mississauga-Erindale is a bona fide Tory elder, whose efforts as an organizer, fundraiser and fixer helped bring the modern party into being. More recently, he has played a key part in the Conservative breakthrough with ethnic communities in southern Ontario, paving the way for the electoral surge that gave the Tories their first majority in 18 years. The Conservatives owe Dechert, and they owe him a lot.
Scott McDougall, a Toronto-based organizer who cut his teeth with the Progressive Conservatives when Joe Clark was leader, remembers a teenage Dechert running a team of canvassers during the Ontario provincial election of 1975. “He stood out from the crowd even then,” says McDougall. “It was a pizza-and-pop operation. But he was very committed, and a very good organizer.” Dechert got a law degree and a job on Bay Street, yet stayed active in the party through the Mulroney years, building a formidable list of contacts. Then, in early 1993, the PCs were reduced to a parliamentary rump, while Reform commenced its advance from the West. Dechert and others began taking stock of the federal political landscape.
The result was the “Blue Committee,” a coterie of Ontario backroomers on a mission to broker peace between the PCs and the Reform party. In early 1998, Dechert joined McDougall, businessman Peter White and long-time Tory campaign hand John Capobianco in a search for a leader who, in McDougall’s words, “wouldn’t poke Preston in the eye.” Their courage wasn’t universally appreciated. “We weren’t very popular in some PC circles,” recalls McDougall. “We were sticking out necks out.”
Still, Dechert showed his diplomatic chops during that period, say party insiders, soothing the fears of Ontario Tories about Reform while pointing out that the splintered political right was a recipe for uninterrupted Liberal rule. That such a soldier saw virtue in a merger eased anxiety, though the union took longer than expected. Meantime, Dechert began contemplating running himself, a challenge that would demand the same perseverance and equanimity he showed as an organizer. Twice he lost in Mississauga-Erindale, in 2004 and 2006, before edging out Liberal Omar Alghabra in 2008 by just 397 votes and establishing a beachhead for the Tories in the Greater Toronto Area.
For this, too, Conservatives feel a weight of obligation. Breaking through in Toronto meant shaking the Liberal grip on the city’s ethnic communities, an achievement for which Dechert can claim a considerable part of the credit. After running in 2004, he worked tirelessly to cultivate ties in Mississauga’s Asian business circles, building on the groundwork laid by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. During last May’s campaign, Dechert and Kenney appeared together at several events organized by those supporters, while Dechert himself paid visits to neighbouring candidates to offer support and advice. “I tip my hat to Bob Dechert,” Victor Oh, a businessman who supported Dechert, told Maclean’s last spring during a campaign event at a Chinese supermarket. “He’s a hard worker. He’s delivered a lot of good things for Mississauga.”
Robert Drummond, a Canadian politics expert at York University in Toronto, says politicians like Dechert are important to parties—especially conservative ones that depend on grassroots support. “That’s why they might want to stick by him: he’s got that kind of dues paid status. It makes it harder to turn against him, and easier to defend him.” Moreover, Drummond adds, the Conservatives have a young parliamentary majority; barring further revelations, they can probably ride this one out.
No surprise, then, that John Baird leapt to his defence soon after the cringeworthy emails began hitting reporters’ inboxes, ridiculing worries that the two-term MP had put his country’s interests at risk. Last Friday, it was Stephen Harper’s turn to reassure reporters—albeit in more lawyerly terms: “As you know, Mr. Dechert has put out a statement,” the Prime Minister said. “I have no information that links this to any government business.”
Suffice to say, Harper’s response stands in stark contrast to his punishment of Maxime Bernier, who in 2008 was forced to resign as foreign affairs minister after he left a batch of sensitive NATO briefing notes at the home of his ex-girlfriend, Julie Couillard. Bernier was valuable, too—a Quebec caucus member with deep roots in his riding. But he had nothing close to Dechert’s organizational credentials or reservoir of good will. More to the point, he had been demonstrably careless with privileged information.
In Dechert’s case, none of the revelations suggest anything more than a dubious choice of companion, while emails between Shi Rong and a fellow Xinhua employee suggest the reporter was preoccupied with romantic passion, not espionage. “About the sad tales you told me about him keeping you waiting for a long time, put it out of your mind,” the friend, Qu Jing, wrote in a message dated June 26, 2010. “Sweep him into the dustbin. He is not good enough for you.”
Xu Wu, a former Xinhua editor who now teaches at Arizona State University’s journalism department, laughs at the idea such a woman could be a spy. “For the sake of argument, let’s assume Shi Rong is an intelligence officer and uses Xinhua’s media outlet as a cover,” he said in an email from Hong Kong, where he is on sabbatical. “Why don’t Shi’s superiors choose an unmarried, tech-savvy agent to do the work, instead of a married woman with ‘puffy cheeks’ and a jealous husband back home who can easily access her computer and account? Why don’t they give Shi a better, credible, creative cover, since all foreigners seem to know that Xinhua is ‘a nest of spies’?”
Reasonable questions, all. But they don’t change the fact that Dechert is guilty of conduct unbecoming to a smart person—not to mention a married man. They’re the sorts of transgressions that don’t sit well with the Prime Minister or with his base of morally attuned, hawkish-minded voters. The good news for Conservatives is that Shi Rong has gone back to China for a vacation from which few believe she’ll return. As for Dechert, he would be well advised not to plan a long future as parliamentary secretary for the minister of foreign affairs. Cabinet shuffles are a fact of political life. And from time to time, even the best party soldier needs a gentle reminder.