BY GEOFFREY STEVENS
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley, An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy!
—“To a Mouse” by Robert Burns.
Stephen Harper knows what Robbie Burns was thinking when he wrote those lines back in 1785.
Harper had his plans perfectly laid, or so he thought. Parliament would come back, and the opposition parties, eager to avoid an election, would do his bidding. First, he would bully them into supporting (or at least not defeating) his throne speech and any legislation that he decreed must be passed. Next, he would embarrass them by presenting a mini-budget off Parliament Hill, rather than in the Commons where they would have the right of reply. Finally, when the polls were ripe, he would bait them into defeating his minority government, thereby forcing an election and – promised joy – the election of a majority Conservative government.
It seemed, briefly, as though Harper’s strategy would work. A poll taken after the mini-budget, with its tax cuts, lifted to Tories to 42 per cent. That’s majority-government range.
In politics, however, the universe seldom unfolds the way the fellow controlling the levers anticipates. All it took was a fugitive awaiting extradition at the Metro West Detention Centre in Toronto to knock Harper’s plans awry. The polls came back down.
Now, the Commons ethics committee has decided to investigate the Mulroney/Schreiber/Airbus affair. It is calling the man in the cell, Karlheinz Schreiber, the Airbus lobbyist and greaser, to testify, probably this week. At this stage, Schreiber has nothing to lose. The committee also intends to call Brian Mulroney, but whether the former prime minister – who has everything to lose – will answer the call himself, or send his faithful mouthpiece, Luc Lavoie, to retell his tale of post-prime ministerial penury, or blow the committee off is not yet known.
There is no realistic prospect that the committee would seek a Speaker’s warrant, a rarely used power, to compel the former PM’s attendance if he declines to appear. But with or without him, there’s a real risk, as Liberal MP Robert Thibault acknowledged, that the committee could become “a little bit of a circus, a little bit of a gong show.”
One thing it definitely won’t be is a Canadian version of the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Investigate Campaign Practices, better known as the Senate Watergate committee, that transfixed American households – 85 per cent of which followed the hearings on live TV – between May 1973 and June 1974. That committee, which forced the resignation of Richard Nixon, was the biggest show of its kind (a real “reality” show) until O.J. Simpson came along.
The committee chair, Sam Ervin, a Shakespeare-quoting southern senator, became a folk hero with observations like these about Nixon loyalists John Mitchell and John Ehrlichman, two of the principal villains in Watergate: “I don’t think either one of them would have recognized the Bill of Rights if they met it on the street in broad daylight under a cloudless sky.”
Not only does the ethics committee chair, Liberal MP Paul Szabo, an accountant from Mississauga, not have Sam Ervin’s turn of phrase, in Canada parliamentary committees simply don’t have the clout of congressional committees in Washington. There, the separation of the executive and legislative powers gives committees a significant degree of independence, which from time to time they exercise.
In Canada, lacking that separation, committees operate under the thumb of the administration. It is only in times like this, with a minority government, that the administration loses control. The opposition parties now have a majority on committees, giving them the ability to pursue inquiries that may (and often are intended to) embarrass the government.
There’s scant chance that the ethics committee will lay a glove on Harper or his government; there are too many degrees of separation between today’s Conservatives and Mulroney’s 1984-1993 Progressive Conservative governments. But the hearings will keep the issues of corruption, integrity and truthfulness alive in the public mind. These issues played in the Tories’ favour in the 2006 election. Not now. The high ground has shifted.
The government has ordered a public inquiry into the Mulroney/Schreiber/Airbus affairs. University of Waterloo president David Johnston has until Jan. 11 to draft terms of reference. There would then be a period of months, perhaps until fall, before hearings begin and witnesses are called.
The Conservatives thought that period might afford a window of opportunity in which to call an election. If nothing else, however, the ethics committee could slam that window shut.
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at
For The Record, K-W and Mercury, Guelph
BY GEOFFREY STEVENS
If the Prime Minister asks you to accept the second worst job in the country, there is only one way to respond. At least, there’s only one way if you are as committed to public service as David Johnston, the president of the University of Waterloo, is. You gulp, then say, “Yes, Prime Minister. I would be honoured. Thank you, Sir.”
That, approximately, is how it went when Stephen Harper “invited
” Johnston to accept the second worst job last week – the job of drafting terms reference for the inquiry into the financial dealings between former prime minister Brian Mulroney and Airbus fixer/lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber. (We’ll come to the worst job in a moment.)
Between now and his deadline of Jan. 11, Johnston will have to pick his way through political landmines as he prepares the mandate for an inquiry will not end up being either a witch-hunt (as the government fears) or a whitewash (as the opposition fears).
He will have to determine how far back the inquiry should reach. Will it reach back to 1976 when Schreiber contributed $25,000 or more to Mulroney’s first run for the Conservative leadership (won by Joe Clark)? Will it reach back to January, 1983 when Schreiber paid to fly anti-Clark delegates to the party’s general meeting in Winnipeg to depose the leader and clear the way for Mulroney’s election as leader in June that year?
Will the inquiry encompass the decision by Air Canada to purchase 34 aircraft from Airbus Industrie for a total of $1.8 billion? The year was 1988, Mulroney was prime minister and Air Canada was still owned by the government.
Will the inquiry probe the secret bank accounts that Schreiber opened in Switzerland, into which he deposited what he has called “grease money” – commissions he received from Airbus to facilitate the sale of aircraft?
Or will Johnston seek to confine the inquiry to more recent history – to whatever financial deal Mulroney struck with Schreiber as the former was leaving office in 1993; to the three envelopes of cash that Schreiber handed Mulroney in hotels in Montreal and New York in 1993 and 1994; and to the $2.1 libel settlement that Mulroney won from the federal government 1997 after he testified in a sworn statement that he barely knew Schreiber and had had no dealings with the man. Neither Mulroney assertion was in accordance with the facts as we now know them.
The damage-control specialists in the PMO want the inquiry restricted to this more recent history. They are desperately afraid that the Mulroney/Schreiber affair will morph into the Tories’ version of the Liberals’ Sponsorship Scandal. They need to build a wall between the Mulroney era and the Harper era – that was then and this is now, and whatever happened then has nothing to do with today’s Conservatives.
A far-reaching inquiry – one that goes back 30 years or so – would be costly and time-consuming and would keep the issues in the public arena for months if not years. For a minority government that aspires to be a majority government, the negative publicity and inevitable perception of guilt by association could be devastating.
But a “small” inquiry – one with a limited scope or timeframe – would outrage the opposition parties, perhaps enough to bring down the Harper government. The reaction on Parliament Hill may not be Johnston’s concern, but he does have to try to draft a mandate that will pass the “smell test” among the public. To do that, the inquiry must address the public’s legitimate questions.
What exactly was the nature of the relationship between Mulroney and Schreiber? What was the $300,000 in cash really for? Was there any more “grease money” paid to anyone that we are not aware of? How did a sleazy operator like Schreiber manage to worm his way into the favour of the former PM (and why did he let him)? What can be done to prevent lobbyists armed with envelopes of cash from buying access to political leaders in the future?
Answering these questions will fall to the person Harper chooses to head the actual inquiry. This will be the worst job in Canada. The commissioner will almost certainly be a current or retired judge, although appointment to such a politically charged inquiry could result in major career damage for a sitting judge. Judges hate political inquiries and for good reason. Still, if the Prime Minister calls one of them, he or she would have little choice but to gulp and to accept.
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments email@example.com