April 15, 2005

Greed and Corruption Applied Liberally, North of the Border

Prime Minister Paul Martin fends off Conservative attacks. Illustration by Patrick LeMontagne, 2004. Used with permission.
Illustration by Patrick LeMontagne, 2004.

Used with permission.

Observations on the Canadian Liberal sponsorship scandal

"A British politician is usually caught with his hand up a woman's skirt while a Canadian politician is usually caught with his hand in the till." - Sun Media columnist Valerie Gibson

These days, the media is saying that the Canadian Liberal Government is in a state of crisis. For months and months, Canadians have watched nightly as the Liberal sponsorship scandal has unfolded. In fact, this is probably one of the biggest political scandals in the last 100 years. I think it might have the potential to bring down the Canadian Liberal government. Certainly, Stephen Harper's opposition Progressive Conservative party seemed ready to circle overhead, waiting for a political opportunity.

According to a recent poll, only 25% of Canadians would support the Liberals if an election were called tomorrow. Canadians are now more concerned about government corruption in Canada (and about the sponsorship scandal in particular) than about the state of health care: it's the biggest problem on the national radar today. That's saying something, since health care was a major issue during the election that brought Paul Martin to power in 2004. Now, a year later, he's testifying at a government inquiry into corruption by members of his own party.

The story thus far...

In the mid-'90s, under Prime Minister Jean Chretien, the federal Liberal government created a program to promote federalism in Quebec. This was the fed's response to growing Quebec separatist sentiment after the "Non" result from the last referendum on Quebec separatism. In that case, "Non" meant "No, we won't secede. We'll stay in Canada, for now". The federal sponsorship program was intended to allocate lots of money for advertising, trade shows and promotional activities in Quebec so that the Government could tell Quebecers how great Canada is. However, kickbacks and double billing by a small group of self-serving, greedy men turned the whole program into the biggest Canadian corruption scandal in recent years.

Now, the Gomery Commission, led by Justice John Gomery, is hearing testimony on the matter. Prime Minister Martin ordered the Gomery Commission, based upon the findings of a report from the Auditor General, Sheila Fraser. Martin is the first sitting PM to give testimony at a public inquiry since about 1873. Recently, he gave testimony regarding his knowledge of goings-on while he was the Liberal finance minister under Jean Chretien back in the '90s.

Now, Martin's minority Liberal government faces the possibility of an imminent election call, and a major loss of confidence by the Canadian public. The other parties represented in the House of Commons are the Progressive Conservatives (read: right wing), New Democratic Party (left wing), and the Bloc Quebecois (whatever is in the best interest of Quebec and French-Canadians).

Here are some of the main players and events

  • Paul Martin: Current Prime Minister of Canada, and head of the minority Liberal Government.

  • Auditor General, Sheila Fraser: Published the scathing 1994 Auditor General's report on the misuse of public funds from the Sponsorship Program, which led to the Gomery Commission.

  • Former P.M., Jean Chretien: Mr. Chretien claims no direct involvement in any wrongdoing or inappropriate activity. Mr. Chretien has a bit of history behind him - not exactly lily white history either.

  • Alfonso Gagliano: Former Head of Public Works, and close friend of former PM, Jean Chretien.

  • Chuck Guite: Liberal bureaucrat in charge of the federal sponsorship program. Alleged to have taken kickbacks in exchange for obtaining huge federal government advertising contracts for various Quebec ad firms.

  • Jean Brault: Former head of Groupaction Marketing. Charged with fraud and conspiracy, implicated senior members of the Quebec wing of the federal Liberals in kickback schemes involving sponsorship money

  • Jacques Corriveau: Another friend of ex-PM Jean Chretien, Corriveau is a graphic designer who admitted to double-billing and acting as a lobbyist for the Liberal party although he was not registered as a lobbyist (a finable offense).

How much money is involved? What is the Cost to the Canadian Tax Payer?

The sponsorship program was originally budgeted for $250 million. The Auditor General's report found that about $100 million was paid to various communications agencies in the form of fees and commissions. Thus far, the RCMP have laid specific charges in connection with about $2 million worth of contracts.

Impacts on the Canadian government and the country

In addition to the massive waste of taxpayer dollars, this scandal has also caused a huge loss of public confidence in the federal government. Opinion polls say that less than 30% of Canadians surveyed would vote for the Liberal party if an election were called tomorrow. Some federal Liberal Members of Parliament have even jumped ship to the Progressive Conservatives - which is kind of like a politician jumping from the middle-right to the farther right of the Canadian political spectrum. (For comparison, the Canadian "Conservative" political right is still a bit to the left of the American "Republican" political right. The difference between them is getting smaller and smaller each year, it seems to me...)

When Prime Minister Paul Martin came to power in 2004, he rode in with a reputation as Jean Chretien's fiscally-responsible finance minister, overseeing the largest Canadian federal budget surplus in recent times. That surplus continued to grow within the cocoon of successive Liberal majority governments, and that same cocoon gave the Liberals the leeway to make policy without the drag of a powerful opposition in the House of Commons. But, it has shown it's downside in unchecked corruption, arrogance and greed.

Oh, the Arrogance of Power...

I'd seen news reports about something called "Shawinigate", and had heard rumours about Jean Chretien being involved in some kinds of patronage or insider deals. When I heard stories about him and some corruption, I figured that he was just disliked. After all, this was a PM who didn't take crap from anybody. He described himself as "the little guy from Shawinigan", but I had also heard him called the street fighter from Shawinigan. His whole manner seemed to tell Clinton and Dubya that they could go F--- themselves. I think Dubya was really irritated by Chretien, and I liked that. Reagan's dead butt probably still has lip prints from our Conservative defac-eighties PM, Brian Mulroney. So, Chretien's arrogance looked like strength and defiance in my eyes.

Unfortunately, Chretien was similarly tough with his own countrymen. He was known to have grabbed a man by the throat when the guy got to Chretien before his own security men could during a public appearance. One comedian called this move "the Shawinigan handshake" (it's extra funny if you say it in Chretien's thick, gravelly Quebec accent.)

It is widely believed that it was Chretien's office that was responsible for ordering all that pepper spray on protesters at the 1997 APEC Conference in Vancouver. Apparently pepper spray was necessary to keep the teeming masses from embarrassing the PM when foreign leaders like Suharto come to visit. Suharto's questionable human rights record was what got the APEC protesters all worked up. When asked how he felt about the use of pepper spray on protesters, the street fighter (who had gotten the Mounties to fight in the streets for him) replied dryly, "Pepper? I put it on my plate!" What a character. (On Canadian author Will Ferguson's Bastard or Bonehead scale, Chretien rates as a definite Bastard.)

So in recent months, Paul Martin has been working hard to distance himself from allegations that, as Chretien's Finance Minister, he could not claim ignorance or lack of responsibility for the sponsorship scandal. "How could the Finance Minister NOT know about this kind of thing?" Canadians are wondering. Many people feel that the federal Liberals deserve to be booted out. Being a minority government, Martin's Liberals are not in the same powerful position that Mr. Chretien enjoyed. The voices of the Conservatives and the NDP bear a lot more weight in the House these days. The popular maxim is that a minority government is a more accountable and less arrogant government.

As of today, both Mr. Harper and Mr. Martin indicate that calls for a snap federal election or a recall of the Liberal government might have been a little bit premature. I hope they will at least wait long enough for the Gomery Inquiry to finish, but stranger things have happenned in Canadian politics.

At the moment, I want to stay idealistic, and believe that our PM has integrity and is not just trying to cover his political rear end.

Read a timeline of events, courtesy of the CBC.

More background on the individuals and companies involved is available from the CBC web site.

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