“And diff'ring judgements serve but to declare,
That truth lies somewhere, if we knew but where.”
~ William Cowper, “Hope”
“I don’t give ‘em hell. I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.”
~ President Harry S. Truman
As the air finally clears around Montreal from the longest winter smog attack on record, our heads remain mired in the fog of sanctimonious sophistry that masquerades for public discourse in Canada these days. Politicians shovel out self-serving gruel, and Canadians, in their typical fecklessness, continue to slurp it up. And this week has more to come.
The Gomery Commission sets to resume in Montreal and it is instructive to review two staggering revelations during the last day of hearings in Ottawa that came out of the mouth of Mr. Justice Gomery himself. They brought into stark relief the apex of hypocrisy, deception and false piety that this whole process that commenced with the House Public Accounts Committee has reached. Canadians’ lack of reaction has also demonstrated the narrow limitations of our national consciousness and the low circumstances to which we have sunk.
During questioning of Prime Minister Martin, Mr. Justice Gomery twice cut off several lines of inquiry. His first intervention was to stop lawyer Pierre Fournier’s persistent attempts to raise doubt on the accuracy and veracity of Auditor-General Fraser’s report and determine if Mr. Martin knew more than what was in it. After several stop-and-go attempts, Mr. Gomery finally blurted out that is was common knowledge that not everything in the A-G report had been thoroughly investigated and that much was included strictly on third-party information.
Gomery’s second comment, near the end of the day, was even more damning and damaging. In response to another lawyer’s question about reaching conclusions, Gomery responded that the Commission already has enough information to determine what happened in this affair “…even though we still have some seventy days to go…”. With that the Ottawa phase adjourned. Both these statements are far more prejudicial than anything Mr. Gomery may have said to the press in December that led Mr. Chrétien’s counsel David Scott demanding Gomery’s recusal.
Gomery’s latter remark puts into question the capacity of this Commission to be fair and impartial and await all the facts before reaching any findings. The former puts into question the legitimacy of the whole process from the day over a year ago that Auditor-General Fraser released her “revelations” with such dramatic verbiage .
We needn’t be terribly surprised at his opinions. This is after all the same Judge who defended the closed bid contract to one accounting firm to handle his Commission’s work on the basis that all other large firms were involved with the government. This is the same rationale that was used by Prime Minister Chrétien when he once asked a reporter “Who do want you want me to work with. Our enemies?” Gomery seems to agree.
It is time to raise to national debate some hard questions that may reveal the troubling truths about the state of what one former Liberal MP called our experiment in “controlled democracy”.
And it is to be hoped that the epitaph for Canada has not already been expressed through the character of Col. Nathan Jessep in “A Few Good Men” when he barked at the prosecutor that “You can’t handle the truth!”
Canadians’ capacity to handle it will determine if this country is still worth fighting for and more importantly whether we, the people, can take it back. For to do so will require a national resolve to reject our mindless intellectual chastity that seeks to reverse our own political deflowering and recognize that we have been living in a fool’s paradise.
As Bernard Shaw wrote, “All great truths begin as great blasphemies.” Let us begin our catechism of blasphemy.
Ø Why was the sponsorship initiative, which according to the two previous Auditor-General’s reports had corrected all problems, given such a grandiose rebirth with recycled facts-- that excluded only the corrective measures in place-- spiced up by language so extreme that Sheila Fraser was criticized even by her own national professional body?
Ø How was it that Prime Minister Martin was so “mad as hell” within an hour of its release?
Ø Where was it dictated that these “sins” were so extreme that our instruments of state were to be converted into McCarthyite weapons of character assassination and destruction of due process?
Ø When was it decided that federalist propaganda was illegitimate yet the cost overruns of $1 billion in the gun registry; the bilking of National Defense by Hewlett-Packard of $165 million; and the hundreds of millions of dollars of contracts to Prime Minister Martin’s firms and friends warranted no scrutiny?
Ø And what was the real motivation for blowing all this up into a national obsession?
As Jeffrey Simpson wrote in the Globe and Mail recently civil wars within the Liberal Party are nothing new. Chrétien did it to Turner and Martin did it to Chrétien. And that is the genesis of this whole affair that will end up costing the Canadian taxpayer $80 million to find what Treasury Board president Reg Alcock once speculated may be only $13 million.
After the nearly-disastrous 1995 Referendum the professional political street was aware that Canada’s national political elite had signed on to destroy the separatist threat at any cost. Liberals and Tories recognized that job one of a Federal government was to keep this country together. The pathetic whining and bleating of the hockey-rink dads and soccer moms about their passports and pensions resonated like white noise across the land.
The politicians didn’t much care how it was done as long as the voters could be satisfied. Besides, the specific tactics were unimportant. The overall strategy and structure had already been in place since Mulroney’s time with tens of millions of discretionary dollars allocated for Canadian unity initiatives with little or no reporting obligations.
And guess what. In the 2000 elections federalists won Quebec for the first time in twelve years. Part of the reason was that the 1001 “silly” initiatives of sponsorship produced summer jobs for kids in Alma and Abitibi; and part-time work in local programs from the Saguenay to the Mauricie; and the flag was waved in all areas of “le Québec profonde”. Yes, it was bread and circuses. But that too is politics and it has worked since Roman times.
Nobody asked C.D.Howe and his dollar-a-year team how they got things done in World War II. The country backed Trudeau in his War Measures in 1970. Well, fighting separatism was a war too. A “cold” war. And government propaganda is a perfectly legitimate tool. If citizens don’t like what they see and hear they can always “throw the scoundrels out” in the next ballot. But whatever happened in the sponsorship initiative was a far cry from a pre-meditated sacking of the public purse and was far less than what the PQ were doing through communications firm Oxygene Neuf during the nineties.
And part of the reason the Liberals lost Québec in 2004 was not the “buying” of Quebec voters as the separatist spin-masters put it. If that was true they would have lost in 2000. Rather it was Martin’s unfortunate and untrue comment that “…this was the way politics was played in Quebec…” Well, in Quebec, politics is a national sport. And Quebecers have a low tolerance for bullshit. This is part of politics everywhere. If politicians are looking for purity of motive they should leave the corridors of power and get themselves to monasteries.
Sponsorship only became “scandalized” when it became part of the Martinites arsenal to wrest control of Chrétien’s political ministry in Quebec in 1999-2000. Their attacks against Chrétien’s political Minister for Quebec, Alfonso Gagliano, were two pronged. The first thrust were accusations that he had recommended a friend of his for a $72,000 job at Canada Lands. Even Jon Grant, Chairman of Canada Lands, claimed in a CTV interview that though he didn’t much like Gagliano, he felt the Minister’s actions were more improper than illegal but not at all unusual in our system.
That issue would have been enough since that led to Chrétien shipping Gagliano off to Denmark. In typical Canadian hypocrital fashion however no one bothered to investigate the La Presse revelations that Jean Charest’s brother Robert had been given a Canada Lands position much earlier for $147,000 and hadn’t seemed to show up very often. Nor the well-known fact that several federal Ministers and officials had their relatives on Ministerial or Departmental payrolls. This hushed-up “tradition” exists even till the present day when Justin Kingsley, the son of Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Chief of Elections Canada, obtained a position in Martin’s PMO.
But the sponsorship cat was out of the bag. That had been the second thrust of the Martinites on the ground in Quebec. Local political operatives found it a handy brush with which to tar and starting spreading rumours that were hard to trace—either to them or to their veracity. It created enough political fodder that Chrétien Public Works Minister Dan Boudria sent the issue to the Auditor-General for review instead of letting the RCMP finish its work on Groupaction and several other companies.
The A-G came back with a regurgitation of its previous reports for the simple reason that she had twice investigated at Chrétien and Gagliano’s requests and deemed all appropriate corrective measures were in place to fix the administrative problems in the initiative. But somehow that part was left out of her public comments on the newly-minted report. Given the events in Ottawa at the time it would not be inappropriate to question whether Fraser had some coaching on the subjective characterizations she used in her press conference.
For the sake of continued Liberal hegemony Chrétien suggested to Martin that he delay his departure past the agreed upon date so that he could defend the policy once the Report came out and leave the party with as clean a slate as possible. But Martin was anxious for the transfer of power to take place in late 2002 and felt he could handle the fall-out just as well. But between November 2002 and the A-G’s report in February 2003 other stories began to hit the front pages. Stories about Martin’s private interests not about Chrétien’s public agenda.
The reported $167,000 that Canada Steamship Lines had benefited from through a variety of considerations during Martin’s tenure as Finance Minister was corrected to $167,000,000. Mr. Martin claimed it was a bureaucratic error not a cover-up. Earnscliffe Strategies, the Ottawa government relations firm located in a building next door to the Langevin bloc, where so many of Mr. Martin’s operatives worked on payroll, was revealed to have received millions in government contracts including work from the Finance Ministry during Mr. Martin’s tenure. The explanation was that he was never directly involved. Lansdowne Technologies, a fully owned sub of CSL, based in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata and the recipient of millions of government grants, subventions and credits, was left off Mr. Martin’s disclosure statements in 1993 and 1994. An accounting oversight the public was told. The EDC supplied a $1.5 billion guarantee so that Air Wisconsin, a near-bankrupt company, could buy six jets from Bombardier represented by Mike Robinson, Martin’s national campaign co-chair, who collected a tidy commission. Robinson stated in a television interview that though he communicated with staffers of the then Finance Minister, he never talked to Mr. Martin himself about this.
All these stories somehow disappeared after that famous day in February 2004 when Auditor-General Sheila Fraser became prosecutor, judge and jury verbally declaring that “…every rule in the book…” had been broken in the sponsorship initiative; the PMO released the recall of Gagliano to the press lock-up at the same time as they got the new A-G report; and Mr. Martin went on television to declare he was “…mad as hell…”
One could be forgiven for wondering if this was not all a very nice piece of orchestration meant to deflect attention from what was becoming a series of Martin “embarrassments” at the least and “scandals” at worst. The timing could not have been more perfect.
But things have not worked out quite so neatly and cleanly. We have learned during the House Public Accounts hearings, and through Gomery, that Martin aides intervened in the sponsorship initiative to try and direct dollars to their friends. Written memos presented by sponsorship bureaucrat Allan Cutler show Martin staff inquiries dating back to the mid-90’s. Testimony has revealed Martin staff phone calls on behalf of Serge Savard who ran $1000 a ticket cocktails for Mr. Martin, and whose son was a Liberal candidate in the last election, regarding a million dollar sponsorship participation. To all this, we are told, Mr. Martin knew nothing.
It really doesn’t matter how hermetically sealed Mr. Martin was or chose to make himself.
What is at stake here is something much more serious than public dollars misspent by either Mr. Chrétien or his successor.
What is at stake is the health of our parliamentary democracy which has been fundamentally compromised over the past ten years by leaders who have used, abused and abrogated public trust and state prerogatives for personal and political gain and in the process destroyed lives and reputations. Mr. Chrétien did it in his attack on Francois Beaudoin, the BDC President who refused to “play ball” in the Auberge Grand-Mère affair. Mr. Martin is doing it through the Sponsorship Inquiry. The tactics in both are reminiscent more of a party of Duplessis than the party of Trudeau.
What is at stake more than anything, is the opportunity for Canadian consequence. After years of cynical duplicity we must ask where are the people? Have Canadians been rendered so senseless that they cannot recognize how they have been manipulated? Are they so loyal to the sovereignty of self-abnegation that there remains no chance for the redemption of national purpose?
Governing is hard. Politics is trench warfare. Warfare made all the harder by the fact that we live in a country with one of the lowest rates of active citizen participation in the Western world. To quote Bernard Shaw once again, “Liberty demands responsibility…that’s why so many dread it.” Well dread it they may, but it’s time to shake up the good-time Charlies and the sunshine patriots that unfortunately make up the overwhelming majority of our citizenry.
A citizenry that lives in an Alice In Wonderland culture that cannot recognize its own lethargy because it’s sitting on it.
A citizenry whose self-doubt is really driven by a jealousy of others self-belief.
A citizenry that has traded individual integrity and conscience for the false security demanded by state-sponsored bureaucratic consensus.
If we don’t shake them up, we will never again be able to dream D’Arcy McGee’s great vision that this “…Northern Dominion of one great people---under one flag and one set of laws--- will vindicate the possibilities of its capacities.”