NATIONAL

ROBERT LATIMER'S ANGRY CRUSADE

CHARLIE GILLIS March 17 2008
NATIONAL

ROBERT LATIMER'S ANGRY CRUSADE

CHARLIE GILLIS March 17 2008

THE SLEAZE FACTOR

With the Cadman affair still unresolved, can the Liberals make Tory ethics an issue?

JOHN GEDDES

As usual, it comes down to what a politician knew and when he knew it. In this case, what Stephen Harper knew about overtures made to Chuck Cadman in the spring of 2005, as his opposition Conservatives tried to coax the Independent MP—who would succumb to cancer that summer—into rejoining their party and providing the crucial vote they needed to bring down the Liberal minority government. Remarkably, a big part of the answer seems to come in Harper’s own recorded voice. After Cadman died, Harper visited his widow, Dona, in September 2005, and was interviewed leaving their Surrey, B.C., home by a writer working on Cadman’s biography.

The now-famous tape of the exchange—an extraordinary artifact—was made widely available by the biographer, Tom Zytaruk. On it, Zytaruk is heard asking Harper about “an insurance policy for a million dollars.” The future prime minister said he didn’t know details of what Cadman was offered, “but I told them they were wasting their time.” Harper elaborates: “I said, ‘Don’t press him.

I mean, you have this theory that it’s, you know, financial insecurity and, you know, just, you know, if that’s what you’re saying, make that case, but don’t press it.’ ”

Those halting words leave plenty to be clarified. Exactly who was planning to talk to Cadman and on what day? In what way did they plan to address Cadman’s purported “financial insecurity”? But the premise of Harper’s answer seems to be that he knew in advance that Cadman was being talked to, that Cadman’s financial situation was part of the discussion, and he approved of the approach, as long as it was handled gingerly. Yet the Prime Minister’s Office disputes that interpretation, and offers an entirely different explanation.

In an email to Maclean’s, Sandra Buckler, Harper’s director of communications, said what the then leader of the Opposition was really conveying in the driveway interview was information Cadman’s widow had only just imparted to him. Buckler said Dona Cadman raised the issue with Harper that day of a financial offer extended to her husband, although she “didn’t use the term life insurance policy.” This was, according to Buckler, “the first time [Harper] had heard of anyone offering Chuck money.” Minutes later, Harper encountered Zytaruk and his tape recorder on Cadman’s driveway.

“[Harper] said he had no details,” Buckler said, “and then went on to share with this guy what Dona had just told him.”

It’s hard to square that version, though, with Harper’s own reference to how he advised party representatives not to “press it.” Needless to say, Liberals are not accepting it. They have seized on the Cadman controversy as their best chance so far to make misgivings about the Harper government’s ethical standards a serious vote-driving concern. Before the Cadman allegations surfaced, Liberals were trying, without much success, to make headway with tales of dubious Tory advertising spending in the 2006 campaign, and supposed Conservative cronyism since they won power. But such claims tend to be too complicated, or too familiar, and none had anywhere near the impact of a sordid tale about shadowy party operatives trying to cajole a likeable, dying, maverick MP into changing his vote for the sake of his family’s security.

The stakes could hardly be higher. That Cadman wouldn’t be swayed, and voted with the Liberals in 2005, doesn’t change the fact that offering an MP any benefit in exchange for his yea or nay in the House is a crime. And even if the bribery allegation levelled against the Tories by the Liberals—which Harper threatens to sue them for making—is never tested in court, the residual stain on the government could be seriously damaging. Harper won power in 2006 thanks in no small part to a voter backlash against Liberal skulduggery in the sponsorship scandal, as exposed by Auditor General Sheila Fraser in her probe of federal advertising contracts in Quebec, then laid bare by judge John Gomery in his judicial inquiry. The

Tories set the tone for their minority early by passing a new Federal Accountabil-

ity Act in the spring of2006. Harper’s claim that he has cleaned up how Ottawa works became the bedrock of his strategy for having his Conservatives replace the Liberals as Canada’s

default governing party.

The Liberals’ bid to strip Harper of that claim to ethical superiority rests now on two questions. Can they keep the Cadman story alive? And can they exploit voter distaste over the affair to cast a wider doubt about how these Tories conduct

themselves? McGill University history professor Desmond Morton, who has written on the history of Canadian political scandals, says the problem Liberals face is persuading voters to distinguish among parties widely presumed to be equally prone to bad behaviour. “Many people, with no study or knowledge about the question, assume all politicians are crooks,” Morton says. “In the end, the problem is, if all politicians are crooks, and you’ve got four crooks on your ballot, you’re going to pick a crook.”

Perhaps that jaded assessment of how voters view politics is accurate. Still, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion was trying, even before the Cadman uproar, to turn the ethics spotlight on the Tories. Last fall, he appointed Mark Holland, a terrier-like Ontario MP, to pursue evidence of patronage, misspending, and other government missteps. Among the files Holland has pushed: suggestions that Environment Minister John Baird unfairly meddled in last year’s Ottawa mayoral election, and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s admission that he broke federal rules by awarding a $122,000 speech-writing contract to a friend without putting it up for bids.

More serious, potentially, is the ongoing dispute over what Parliament Hill insiders call the in-and-out affair. Few Canadians outside official circles have paid much attention to it—and no wonder, given its complexity. At its heart is a clash over Conservative advertising spending in the 2006 campaign. Elections Canada has refused to reimburse 67 Tory candidates for what the party says were legitimate local campaign ad costs. The elections overseer claims the Conservative party actually transferred thousands of dollars to local candidates, who then dutifully sent the money back to the party to pay for what were, in effect, national ads.

If Elections Canada is right, the scheme allowed the party to exceed its legal limit on national advertising by more than $850,000. The Conservatives say they did nothing wrong, and are fighting Elections Canada in Federal Court over the matter. At the same time, federal Elections Commissioner William Corbett is conducting an inquiry. If he decides the law has been broken, he can ask the director of public prosecutions to lay criminal charges. A spokesman for Elections Canada would not say how long Corbett is expected to take probing the case. But if he does eventually send the matter to trial, this murky story could suddenly command much more attention.

Liberals are hoping the Cadman affair nudges voters toward the throw-the-bumsout mood that’s so often a key factor in a government-changing election. Any fresh focus on allegations of wrongdoing would take on added importance if the Tories can’t shake the Cadman affair. They protest that the attempt to cast them as corrupt is grossly unfair, given their sweeping reform of goodgovernment laws. There’s no denying the 2006 Federal Accountability Act, a massive bill updating dozens of statutes, made a powerful initial statement. It overhauled conflict of interest and election financing rules, banning political contributions from com-

panies and unions, and limiting individual contributions to about $1,000.

But since that high-profile start, the Tories’ approach to accountability has not escaped criticism. Patronage and lobbying are two perennial areas of scrutiny. Harper vowed to end partisan favouritism in giving out government jobs, but then scrapped the plan for an independent public appointments commission after opposition MPs rejected his nominee to chair it, former oil patch executive and Tory fundraiser Gwyn Morgan. He campaigned on a promise to make cabinet ministers reveal their contacts with lobbyists, but instead new regulations finally tabled early this year put the onus only on registered lobbyists to disclose their “oral and arranged” contacts with government officials.

In fact, Ottawa’s lobbying culture cruised intact into the new Tory era. Even Earnscliffe Strategy Group, the firm once so closely associated with Liberal Paul Martin’s machine, is thriving, thanks to the firm’s well-connected Tories, like Geoff Norquay and Yaroslav Baran. In 2006-07, the first fiscal year of Harper’s government, 9,656 lobbyists signed up, as they are required to by law, with the federal lobbyists’ registry, up 38 per cent from the final year of Liberal rule.

An Ottawa still swarming with lobbyists, and a system still susceptible to patronage appointments, isn’t quite what Harper ran on. Yet that probably wouldn’t matter much, unless the Cadman saga turns into an attention-grabbing scandal that puts a cloud over him.

For her part, Dona Cadman, who wants to run for the Tories in her late husband’s old riding, says Harper didn’t do anything wrong. She issued a statement this week saying that when she asked him back in 2005 about the $l-million policy, which she says her husband told her Tories had offered, Harper “looked me straight in the eyes and told me he had no knowledge of an insurance policy. I knew he was telling me the truth; I could see it in his eyes.”

Based on that exchange, Cadman says she regards the offer made to her husband as “the overzealous indiscretion of a couple of individuals.” Her opinion carries moral weight, and no doubt it was good news for Harper and his defenders. Yet nagging loose ends remain. After all, the Prime Minister’s communications director had made a point in her earlier email to Maclean’s of saying Dona Cadman did not mentioned an insurance policy to Harper in their 2005 conversation. As for any “overzealous” Tories who might have approached Cadman, even individuals acting without their party’s sanction aren’t allowed to offer an MP a benefit in return for a vote. M