By Stephen Kimber
January 31, 2008
One of the conventional wisdom arguments in conventional-wisdom-ruled Ottawa is that even if Brian Mulroney did commit a no-no by accepting envelopes stuffed with cash from Karlheinz Schreiber — and, perhaps only in Ottawa, is that still in question — the reality is that such bad behaviour couldn’t possibly occur in today’s squealingly clean, Accountability-Act obsessed Ottawa.
In fact — or so goes the argument — Stephen Harper’s government’s response to the Liberal sponsorship scandal was so over-the-top over-wrought that this whole ethics in government fixation has become an albatross around the neck of good governance and is discouraging the best people from participating in the political process.
It is true that Harper’s Conservatives won the last federal election, in part, on the basis of their promise to clean up the way political Ottawa did business after Justice John Gomery’s investigation turned over the rocks and revealed the extent of the sleaze. And it is also true that the Tories did bring in a 214-page Federal Accountability Act as one of their first items of business.
But it is unfortunately true too — as Democracy Watch, an openness in government lobby group, points out — that the Tories only included in the Act 30 of the 50 measures they initially promised, and that they have only implemented 24 of those.
Among the loopholes Democracy Watch has identified: Anyone with the cash to do so can still donate an unlimited amount to help a candidate win a nomination or support a party leadership candidate ( so long as that candidate doesn’t use the money directly for their campaign). Politicians are not supposed to accept gifts that could influence their decisions but, under the current rules, they don’t have to disclose any gift under $10,000 — and those disclosure statements aren’t even audited. “As a result,” says Democracy Watch, “it is very easy for a federal politician or official to hide a gift worth up to $9,999.”
Secret lobbying is still legal so long as you don’t do it for more than 35 days in any six-month period, and even registered lobbyists don’t have to provide details of who they’re cosying up to, or how often. Even one of the most touted provisions of the Act — the one forbidding cabinet ministers and senior mandarins from attempting to influence their former colleagues for five years, after they leave office — has a Hummer-sized loophole, allowing ministers to exempt their staff from the ban.
“To give just one example to show how loophole-filled the system still is,” Democracy Watch concluded in an op-ed piece it says the Globe and Mail refused to run, “Karlheinz Schreiber and Brian Mulroney would still not be required to be publicly listed as in-house corporate lobbyists (as long as they lobbied less than 36 days every 6 months), and Schreiber could still give $300,000 in secret to some federal candidates, and to all federal politicians, political staff and public servants right after they leave office, either as a donation or as payment for lobbying services (and could give the same amount in secret to trust funds maintained by every federal political party and their riding associations).
Speaking of our former prime minister, it has been instructive to watch Brian Mulroney’s lawyers sputter and threaten this week. They lawyers were responding to the Commons Ethics Committee’s plans for pursuing its investigation into the Mulroney-Schreiber affair.
After the committee asked the auditor general to examine Mulroney’s tax records to see whether they shed any light on the secret cash payments he received and, after Mulroney’s former chief of staff, Norman Spector, publicly promised to “identify the source of large quantities of cash” delivered to the prime minister’s residence when he testifies, lawyer Guy Pratte declared it all irrelevant and/or that “it breaches the most basic requirements of fairness,” and then threatened that Mulroney might refuse to reappear before the committee if it doesn’t change its plans.
It’s probably worth revisiting what Brian Mulroney had to say back in November when he called for a full public inquiry into the entire affair — all the way back to his government’s controversial 1988 purchase of 34 Airbus jets — so that the “whole truth [can be] finally exposed and tarnished reputations restored… I have come to the conclusion that in order to finally put this matter to rest and expose all the facts and the role played by all the people involved, from public servants to elected officials, from lobbyists to police authorities, as well as journalists, the only solution is for the government to launch a full-fledged public commission of inquiry.”
Since the Harper government’s announced public inquiry will be much more limited and circumscribed, Mulroney should be grateful that the Ethics Committee has taken on the difficult task of exposing the “whole truth” of what really happened.
That he suddenly isn’t may tell us more than we may want to know about that whole truth.
Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King's College. His column, Kimber's Nova Scotia, appears in The Sunday Daily News.