Why we still need an inquiry
According to the most recent public opinion poll, most Canadians don’t want a public inquiry into the strange, fact-is-fantasy, fantasy-is-reality, no-really, tall tale of Lyin’ Brian Mulroney, Sleazy Karlheinz Schreiber, the incredibly shrinking $300,000, the sadly bloating $2.1 million, the globe-trotting lobbying effort on behalf of world peace, light tanks and the dietary benefits of pasta in fighting obesity to a who’s who of conveniently dearly departed world leaders, and… oh yes, the Airbus affair and that $20 million in grease money Schreiber once spread around political Canada like jam on toast on behalf of his corporate clients.
The Globe and Mail’s resident contrarian, Margaret Wente, wrote this week that we should all just move on. William Kaplan, the lawyer-journalist who once wrote a book proclaiming Mulroney’s innocence, discovered he’d accepted $300,000 in cash payments and then turned around and wrote a second book criticizing him, agrees. “We should probably call it a day,” writes the obviously weary Mr. Kaplan.
Brian Mulroney, perhaps not surprisingly, now shares that view.
Prior to last week, Mulroney had loudly proclaimed he wanted a full-scale public inquiry to clear his name (almost as loudly, it should be noted, as his chief spoke-spinner had once insisted our former prime minister never took money from Schreiber).
But then Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised Mulroney his public inquiry, and Mulroney got called to testify before the Commons Ethics Committee, and… oops.
Mulroney may have belatedly realized a public inquiry with a judge, lawyers and testimony-under-oath might not turn out to be another fawning memoir-promotion in high-definition, low-content, full colour with the likes of Lloyd Robertson. Or even another talk-until-they-drop partisan parliamentary committee appearance.
A real public inquiry could subpoena Mulroney’s bank and tax records. It could follow the Schreiber money trail to that secret Swiss account code-named “Briton,” then trace it back to Canada and on to The Pierre hotel in New York, even into that secret New York safety deposit box where Mulroney says he kept the cash. Records there could show exactly when the box was opened, how many times it was visited, etc. The inquiry could tell us how and when what was left of the cash came back to Canada, even whether the man who gifted us the GST actually paid it on what he now says he belatedly claimed as income.
A real public inquiry might compare Mulroney’s claims about his meetings on behalf of Schreiber with all those late and/or unidentified world leaders with any records — transcripts, notes, recollections of others present — that still exist in order to determine whether Mulroney was telling the truth about what he did to earn his $300,000… er, $225,000 retainer.
A real public inquiry would force Mulroney’s many friends and enablers — including key friends-of-both like lobbyist Fred Doucet — to testify under oath about Mulroney’s relationship with Karlheinz Schreiber.
No wonder Mulroney doesn’t want a real public inquiry.
And no wonder his many media apologists don’t want one either.
But what about the rest of us?
According to a recent Harris-Decima poll, only 32 per cent of Canadians now want Harper to call the public inquiry he promised.
That’s not to suggest they think Mulroney is telling the truth. The same poll showed only 21 per cent believed Mulroney was telling the truth when he testified last week.
Perhaps they believe they already know all they really need to — or will ever find out — about what actually happened. Perhaps they think an inquiry will cost too much and change too little.
Which is true — and not. The process of reform in politics is slow and inevitably stuttering. But it does happen. Stephen Harper’s Conservative swept into office on a promise to clean up after the sponsorship scandal. Their Public Accountability Act doesn’t go nearly far enough, but it is a step.
Beyond better legislation, the key to discouraging political bad behaviour is the knowledge there is no statute of limitations on misdeeds. The sponsorship inquiry took us back a decade; this inquiry could answer the still largely unasked questions about which politicians got what and why from Schreiber’s $20-million “grease money” accounts.
Politicians and their media apologists have been quick to say there’s no need for a public inquiry, no need to dredge up the past because it’s in the past and could never happen again.
Don’t buy it. There are only two pauses between a politician and scandal — legislation and the fear of getting caught.
Bring on the public inquiry.
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.