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What I Told the Gomery Commission

Wimpy media enables corrupt officials.

Rafe Mair 7 Nov

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So neither Jean Chretien nor Paul Martin knew about the Sponsorship caper. Let's see what else these guys didn't know anything about. There's the Business Development Bank fiasco (that's the one in which Chretien denies putting pressure on the federal crown corporation to make a dubious loan to a pal). There's the Human Resources Ministry scandal, which golly gee whiz you can't expect then-Finance Minister Paul Martin to know anything about. Then there's the Shawinigan golf course shenanigans that the MP and part owner of the golf club, one Jean Chretien, knew nothing about.

B.C., too, has experienced some of this amnesia at the top. In the amazing Doug Walls case, Premier Campbell had never heard of the man to whom he gave $600,000 tax dollars to administer. He didn't know this man even though Mrs. Walls and Mrs. Campbell are cousins and despite the fact that Campbell went all the way to Prince George to lease a car from Walls and stayed at his house. And it goes without saying that he knew nothing about what every living, breathing Liberal in Prince George knew; namely, that Mr. Walls was an undischarged bankrupt who was under active investigation for a million bucks worth of fraud. (He has since been charged). All this is by way of saying that the Gomery Commission was a glorious waste of money. The latest media estimate of the cost of the inquiry is upwards of $80 million, once the second leg is done.

The second mandate in the inquiry calls upon the Commission to make recommendations to the Government of Canada, based upon its findings of fact, to prevent mismanagement of sponsorship programs and advertising activities in the future. And here is where I came in.

Ottawa calling

About three weeks ago, I received a call from the Commission asking if, in a week's time, I could appear before the Commission and help them with stage two of the mandate. I was not happy with the idea because, while I was certain I could help, it looked much like they wanted my presence but not my opinion. And so it proved to be.

I received the "briefing book" three days before I was to appear, which delegated to me the responsibility to enlighten the judge on Access to Information laws in BC. I phoned the lady in charge and told her I knew very little about the subject since I was the mouthpiece and someone else did the research. I told her that my appearance on that issue would be a waste of everyone's time.

The next day, I received a call from the commission telling me that there had been a change and now I was to advise Justice Gomery about the pros and cons of "whistleblower" legislation. I got quite angry and told her that while I had a lot of knowledge about politics and the media, I had nothing to say on the question I was posed. I told her I wasn't going to attend.

'Hemming and hawing'

That evening, I received a call from John Fraser, former Speaker of the House of Commons, a permanent member of the commission and a lifelong friend. He begged me to appear. I told John what I wanted to say and that there was no place on the agenda for me to say it. John assured me that I would have the opportunity to say what I wished, that it was important that Justice Gomery hear it. I reluctantly agreed to go.

I duly attended and listened as various experts told us how what was needed was a better code of ethics and stuff like that. Senator Pat Carney from BC, orally giving us a bio sketch of her time in government, opined that the rules were all there so they only needed to be enforced. I could see that my tummy feeling was right -- I should have stayed home.

When my turn came I used the opportunity to tell Justice Gomery of the slipshod way I was approached and how I had protested that neither of the subjects chosen for me were suitable. Judge Gomery them hemmed and hawed and said he understood that I did have an opinion and would I like to summarize it? I said I preferred to read my brief, which I did. (I am attaching a copy of this brief at the end.) In essence, I said that this and other similar shenanigans were bound to reoccur unless there were watchmen and that the natural watchmen were MPs and the media: both of which, as things are, are woefully ill-equipped to perform this tasks.

'Wide-eyed radical?'

When I finished, you would have thought I was some wild-eyed radical who had just demanded the overthrow of the system. Unlike other statements, my presentation drew no comment.

Now, there's always a good chance that someone who thinks he knows something, in fact, does not. Perhaps my conclusions were all wet. That, however, doesn't alter the fact that I was invited and therefore there must have been a reason. If they wanted to know what I thought, you'd think they would have asked before they made the agenda and, seeing I was a square peg for a round hole, withdrawn the invitation.

I end with an opinion - if Justice Gomery doesn't think the mild-mannered media and neutered MPs contributed to the scandal, I believe his second report will be useless. I came away from this meeting, one of five regional hearings across Canada, feeling it was window-dressing and that Justice Gomery didn't want to hear anything that might make him exercise his mind and ask himself questions that establishment people like him don't like to ask.

Presentation to Gomery Commission by Rafe Mair, October 20, 2005

"I frankly don't know much about federal access rules and can only say that the information received in the limited number of releases I've seen, look more like the fan-tan girl than the real thing … tantalizing but hardly fully exposed."

"Access to information is an essential tool to finding the truth, but my concern is down a slightly different road … what is the effect of massive scandals on the citizens? Is Access to Information, however helpful, a constant searchlight into public affairs or is it a tool requiring use by ever-vigilant snoops who may be in very short supply indeed? Do we have the machinery without the workers? Have Canadians, suckled on the notion of peace, order and good government, been anaesthetized such that they really don't much care what goes on in Ottawa?"

"I say it's critical to our national unity that we find the means and determination to root out and punish wrong-doing … and prevent it occurring in the future. That we may deal with it, as this commission indicates, is a good thing … but is it enough that we wait for wrongdoing to become scandalous rather than, by constant vigilance, deter it? And is the rot one infers is in government harmful to our national unity?"

Scandal fatigue

"Why do I bring national unity into this?"

"Because in this province, from what I've been able to glean, the reaction to federal scandals ranges from boredom to 'what else would you expect?' Their MPs answer their concerns, if they answer them at all, with a patronizing "there, there … we're getting to the bottom of this just as quickly as we can". There is such a strong sense of disconnect between British Columbians and Ottawa that no one expects much more from their MPs."

"This raises two issues that may or may not be within this commission's terms of reference."

"First, the fact that the concentration and convergence of media ownership has, to all intents and purposes, eliminated the muckraker. Thus, it is that questions are just not being asked or, if asked, lightly pursued. That is not to say there aren't good writers in the national papers because there are. What there is not is a media culture of holding governments' feet firmly to the fire. We have good writers, some able electronic reporters, who take a poke here, a funny little aside there, perhaps laced with criticism but always suitably polite and deferential. The fact that active journalists reporting on the national government have been awarded and have accepted Orders of Canada speaks volumes for the coziness of the relationship."


"Every once in awhile, there is a discovery of chicanery, but it seems that the media involved are often unwilling to follow through. One example is the story on the front page of the Globe and Mail some time ago that told of Brian Mulroney getting shopping bags full of money from the Airbus fixer, Karl-Heinz Schreiber. It was the editor's front page editorial and Mr. Greenspon also told us that Mr Mulroney tried to get him not to print the story and if he agreed, he, Mulroney, would give the editor another even better story! Given Stevie Cameron's book on the Airbus scandal -- which spawned no libel suits, incidentally -- one would have thought that a skeptical media would pounce on this story and follow it through. Nothing of the sort happened and we're left as it was when Sherlock Holmes asked why the dog wasn't barking."

"Of even more importance -- and the issues are linked -- is the concentration of all power in the Prime Minister's office. Pierre Trudeau once said that 50 yards off the Hill, the MP was a nobody and I always wondered why the geographical limitation. MPs individually, and in committees with real power to investigate, should hold the Prime Ministers' Office and the various ministries to close account -- they don't because they can't. There is talk of the 'democracy deficit' but when the political culture is based on the myth that Parliament controls the executive (which on paper it does, but the reality is that the PMO is all powerful) there is very limited surveillance indeed. That so much power could be cornered by the Prime Minister is scary, especially when you consider that the Superintendent of the RCMP is no longer an independent officer but a deputy minister to the Solicitor-General and picked/appointed by the Prime Minister."

"I may seem to be drifting off the point but I'm not. I hope I'm demonstrating that is it not just the scandal that is weakening the nation but the reasons it was possible in the first place."

Secretive authority

"Canada has an establishment which runs the show. There can be dissent but only within reasonable, to them, boundaries. A quick example would be the Charlottetown Accord where the establishment got its backside kicked. Every segment -- political, management, labour, the artsy fartsy set and with one exception I won't bore you with, the media -- decided to ask no questions. One powerful media member, Maclean-Hunter, actually signed onto the 'yes' side without raising an eyebrow! You would now think that there never had been a Meech Lake/Charlottetown issue that gripped the nation for 6 years … it has been airbrushed out of history by the media and politicians alike. It didn't happen."

"I raise that issue because it makes this point -- all those set in authority over us are secretive by nature. That not only means that they hide things but that they resist every effort by MPs or anyone else to find out what they're doing and when bad things happen, they all become as the inkfish. I've been there -- for the politician and too many bureaucrats, the only passion greater than hiding things is the compulsion to cover up and distract."

'Scandal secondary'

"The sponsorship scandals and all your work, with respect, will just be matters to airbrush from the scene too, once enough time passes, if this commission doesn't recognize that the scandal itself is secondary to the public cynicism it fuels and doesn't see clearly that for all the sins committed, the greater sins may be the system itself and the passiveness of the national media."

"You can have, Mr. Commissioner, the best access to information laws and procedures in the world, but if neither our elected members nor the national media have both the means and the motive to use that access vigorously and often, we might just as well not have it."

"If we the people cannot have a constant bright light looking into the goings on of the government, there is no democracy. Since there's little enough democracy in the system itself we are in grave danger of losing our country unless those we vote into power, and the free press, so essential to a free people, start doing their jobs properly."

"That, sir, is how important your deliberations and recommendations are to all who love their country and want to revive it and keep it."

Rafe Mair has a regular column on The Tyee on Mondays.  [Tyee]

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