December 21, 2007

 

Oh, Canada...

From: The Globe and Mail

If previous inquiries are any guide, perverse fallout is a-comin'
By: JEFFREY SIMPSON
November 16, 2007

Between them, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien served as prime minister for almost 19 years. Their governments, therefore, helped define modern Canada.

But each has been, or will be, subject to a public inquiry - in Mr. Chrétien's case over the sponsorship affair, in Mr. Mulroney's over his dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber.

The very fact of these inquiries, the media coverage, the conclusions reached in the sponsorship inquiry, and the perfervid political accusations could not help but deepen cynicism about politics.

In the sponsorship affair, the Gomery inquiry unveiled a parade of shady Quebec characters who had been bottom-feeding on federal contracts and/or Liberal contacts.

The overwrought response to these revelations was the Conservatives' Accountability Act, which created a series of new mini-bureaucracies, and a further swelling of the Auditor-General's power and office.

These represented the classic hammer-to-hit-a-fly routine, since the sponsorship scandal had not been about the lack of rules, regulations, procedures and checks but about the deliberate decision by a handful of people to circumvent them.

New mini-bureaucracies, more paperwork, fresh regulations and over-the-top requirements to report who spoke to whom outside government are already having the perverse effect of making an already cumbersome government more cumbersome, and an already form-and-procedure-driven bureaucracy even more bureaucratic.

The effect of the Gomery inquiry, therefore, was to flush out shady characters and dubious, even illegal, actions but, over the longer term, to make even less effective the operations of the federal government and less attractive that government as a place to work.

These post-Gomery requirements, however, were part of the response to the overall cynicism about government that had previously produced, under Mr. Chrétien, new financing rules for parties. Among other changes, these restricted private donations to $5,000 and banned union and corporate contributions.

The avenging Conservatives, creators of the Accountability Act, then sliced the limit to $1,000, in part for their own political gain, since their ability to hit up people for small donations eclipsed considerably that of the Liberals.

But, again, the law of unintended consequences played itself out. The one party that now barely tries to raise money is the Bloc Québécois, because the public subsidy it receives (largely from outside Quebec) is so large. Thus, taxpayers in the rest of Canada are hugely subsidizing a party whose ambition is to break up Canada, allowing separatists to channel almost all of their fundraising efforts into supporting the Parti Québécois.

Moreover, the $1,000 limit will discourage serious people from running for party leadership positions, since who would want to be saddled with enormous debts, as are Bob Rae, Michael Ignatieff and other candidates for the Liberal leadership almost a year ago?

It is too soon to know what effects the Mulroney inquiry will have, but we can be sure, if previous inquiries are any guide, that some of the fallout will be perverse.

In part, the fallout will depend on the terms of reference and, of course, the person who presides. Mr. Mulroney wants the widest possible terms, because he has apparently decided to turn the inquiry into a massive platform from which to expose what he believes has been the campaign against him by political and media foes, bureaucrats, lobbyists and, of course, Mr. Schreiber.

He could have offered a simple, public explanation for the questions that have been raised about his conduct vis-à-vis Mr. Schreiber. But he opted for the inquiry and will live with the consequences.

As for Mr. Schreiber, he has already fulfilled his ambition to remain in Canada and escape extradition to Germany, where his disbursements of money have made him a wanted man by German authorities. This result was precisely the one he sought. Another result is how asinine Canadian laws are to have allowed him to avoid extradition for eight years - and counting.

Maybe something good can come from this miserable affair before the inquiry even starts - provided someone reviews how Mr. Schreiber parlayed the laws into an eight-year delay. Lawyers, judges and justice ministers might wish to study how this happened, so the law ceases being such an ass.

Contact: jsimpson@globeandmail.com

Copyright 2007 - The Globe and Mail

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