Henry Champ writes A Good Man Leaves the Hill

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From Washington Blog by Henry Champ Tuesday, September 19, 2006 A Good Man Leaves the Hill

One thing the Canadian Embassy in Washington is especially proud of is its contacts with the White House, the State Department and Capitol Hill.

Every ambassador likes to think his team has the best ones. It’s clear some people are better at this game than others.

On Monday evening, Ambassador Michael Wilson hosted a farewell reception for Colin Robertson.

At the residence were key lobbyists, pollsters, Americans with interests in Canada or who have work that involves Canada, some writers and a few senior journalists.

All were friends of Robertson, who in two years had made an enormous impact in Washington.

A career diplomat, Robertson came to the embassy to head a new office called the Washington Advocacy Secretariat, the brainchild of former prime minister Paul Martin.

Martin was dissatisfied with Canada’s penetration of the corridors of power in Washington. In particular, he felt Canada was not paying enough attention to Capitol Hill.

On issues like softwood lumber, there were congressional forces opposed to Canada’s export policy, but there were also congressmen who wanted the cheaper wood for home-building. Robertson found those people and organized them to fight for Canada’s position.

Nobody was better at finding Canada’s friends than Robertson.

Lobbyists talk with envy at how Robertson milked the congressional ranks of those in border states, how he made certain those folks argued for the need to protect the commercial interests of both Canada and the United States.

He created a map of the United States that listed on each state how much money it did in annual trade with Canada and which industries or sectors benefited. He made certain that map was in the hands of anyone with the slightest influence. Most congressmen were floored to find out Canada was their state’s biggest customer.

When Stephen Harper won the election, one of the first appointments was Wilson as ambassador. Wilson arrived with a mandate to improve relations with Washington and to find a solution to the chronic softwood lumber dispute. He had Robertson’s work to serve as a base, so the spectacular accomplishments in a very short time are owed a lot to Robertson’s shoe leather.

But Manitoba-born Robertson is not your usual diplomat.

Gregarious, personable and possessing seemingly inexhaustible energy, Robertson blitzed Capitol Hill. One lobbyist said he not only knew the congressmen, he knew their schedulers. Another, attending his farewell dinner, guessed he had made more trips to the Hill than any other Canadian diplomat ever, that walking the hallways of the Capitol with Robertson was like following a rock star, he was known to so many.

However, not everyone at the embassy approved of Robertson’s outreach.

Canada watchers talked of the open envy.

The former Liberal government also wanted the new secretariat under Robertson to open up the embassy to the provinces and their premiers to help advance their regional issues in Washington. Martin felt the premiers had unique contacts with fellow governors and this would help Canada’s overall lobbying effort.

Wilson told the gathering that Robertson was so successful in upgrading the provincial footprint at the embassy that in every premier’s office Robertson was not only the best-known embassy official but also the go-to guy in Washington.

The provinces flourished under the new secretariat.

Murray Smith, Alberta’s representative in Washington, with Robertson’s help, became so well-known on Capitol Hill, that Wilson, testifying before a House sub-committee, was greeted by a congresswoman who opened up her line of questioning by asking, “How is my old friend Murray Smith?”

Wilson told CBC News he is sorry Robertson is leaving, and wanted him to stay. Because he will be picking Robertson’s replacement, he will expect that replacement to do the job exactly as Robertson did it.

So why is Robertson leaving?

It was certainly the buzz at the farewell dinner.

Robertson is a history buff. Some said his new job as president of Historica, the foundation whose mission is to help all Canadians know more about their history and accomplishments, was too good to turn down.

Others pointed a finger at the Prime Minister’s Office, saying it was nervous with a Martin appointee in its midst.

The majority say Robertson’s popularity, his style of work and the elevation of provincial concerns at the embassy all combined to do him in with his more traditional bureaucratic colleagues. The in-fighting got to be too much.

But everyone at the ambassador’s residence on Monday night agreed on one point, Robertson did a wonderful job in his two years, and that he was a great servant for Canada.

From Comments

Jeff Mains


Well done Colin!
I briefly met Colin as he expedited a passport for my new born son in Hong Kong back when he was climbing the foreign service ladder. Very personable and willing to serve. What ever he does next he will no doubt shine.