Mulroney’s new offensive

MARY JANIGAN February 23 1987

Mulroney’s new offensive

MARY JANIGAN February 23 1987

Mulroney’s new offensive


Just 12 hours after his name was linked last week with an RCMP investigation, Roch LaSalle invited the news media to his riding for an important announcement. Journalists flocked to Joliette, Que., speculating that the minister without portfolio might announce his resignation from cabinet. Instead, LaSalle handed out free champagne and unveiled a $2.2-million plan to upgrade the local airport. Then, dismissing reports that 30 businessmen had paid $150,000 to attend a dinner at which he was the guest of honor, he issued a proclamation of innocence—and ignorance. “Until I have proof to the contrary, I refuse to believe that it happened.”

But the veteran Tory politician acknowledged that—after last month’s disclosures that he hired two aides with criminal backgrounds and selected a relative to head a Crown corporation—his credibility was in question. “If it is necessary to quit the Cabinet, I am a volunteer,” he proclaimed. “I am ready to make a sacrifice.” In fact, LaSalle had already made that offer in a discussion with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney last week. “If you want me to leave, I’ll do it,” LaSalle said. According to Maud Leclerc, LaSalle’s press secretary, Mulroney replied that he had not yet made a decision.

The LaSalle affair capped the fourth consecutive week during which controversy about government scandals dogged the Conservatives. Although opposition MPs and reporters were increasingly uneasy with the frenetic climate of scandal—and aware that erroneous charges could trigger a public backlash against them—reports of irregularities continued to surface. While LaSalle denied all knowledge of the unorthodox fund-raising scheme, Mulroney told the Commons that he first heard about the party in January, 1986, and quickly brought it to the attention of the RCMP. That investigation led to 50 charges of influence peddling, bribery and breach of public trust against Conservative MP Michel Gravel, the host of the affair. Gravel is scheduled to stand trial in March.

Meanwhile, Public Works Minister Stewart Mclnnes admitted that federal officials secretly changed the bidding rules in the awarding of a $l-million contract to rent a building to the federal

government—a contract which eventually went to a firm in Drummondville, Que., which had Conservative connections. That revelation followed indications that the city’s Conservative MP,

Jean-Guy Guilbault, had interceded with LaSalle on behalf of the Tory firm and that senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) had taken an unusual interest in the decision. As well, a national poll released early in the week put the Tories in last place in every region but Ontario. By week’s end, the Tories, struggling to stay calm and united, were reeling. Said one senior ministerial aide: “It is just pervasive, this feeling of gloom. Everyone feels stuck in mud.”

As that disquiet reached into the PMO, Mulroney’s senior advisers said that they were determined to regain control of the political agenda. Over the next

few weeks, ministers said, they would flood Parliament with legislative initiatives, including tougher antipornography measures, stiffer penalties for sexual abuse of children and proposals

to privatize Crown corporations. And last week Deputy Prime Minister Don Mazankowski announced that a longawaited free vote on capital punishment will be held in the Commons before June (page 10). One senior PMO official told Maclean's: “Mulroney feels it’s a tough period where a lot beyond his control is happening. [But] he does believe that things will get turned around. You have to keep your head down, keep to the agenda and continue to govern.”

The Prime Minister himself was on the offensive last week. During a two-day swing through Quebec, Mulroney first lashed out at the opposition, charging that “everybody knows the Liberals did worse.” Then he turned on the news media: “The press is chasing its tail every day to try and outdo its neighbor. Who can come up with a better story? And by God, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.” Most of the charges against his gov-

ernment, Mulroney said, were simply unsubstantiated “innuendoes, halftruths and unfounded rumors.” Twenty-four hours after that angry outburst, Mulroney told the Commons that he first heard allegations about the Quebec fund-raising scheme in early 1986. He said that he “immediately” ordered the Clerk of the Privy Council, Paul Tellier, to call the RCMP. According to a CBC report, the controversial fundraising party was held in Montreal in July, 1985, with then-public works minister LaSalle as the guest of honor. Most of the 30 businessmen paid $5,000 apiece—in cash—to attend. In return,

they expected to receive federal contracts—but they apparently were disappointed, and later voiced their complaints to LaSalle. But Mulroney pointed out that although charges were laid against another member of the House, LaSalle had not been charged, and he asked, “Can we not assume that someone is innocent until proven guilty?”

But these revelations focused unwelcome attention on Conservative fundraising methods. Last week supply and services department officials confirmed to Maclean's that they sent three civil servants to a business dinner organized

by Gravel in March, 1985, in Montreal. The officials appeared because Ottawa offers free lectures on how to obtain federal department contracts. But apparently Gravel added a dinner to the event—and then asked the 34 businessmen to pay a $100 admission fee.

The reports came on the heels of a new flurry of opposition charges over the Drummondville contract. A former Conservative organizer, Montreal businessman Pierre Blouin, was convicted last year of influence peddling in connection with that contract. Another unidentified Conservative is also under investigation. The Liberals have linked Mulroney’s principal secretary, Bernard Roy (page 9), and MP Jean-Guy

Guilbault to discussions about the competition between Hama Inc., a firm with Liberal connections, and Brodilaf, a firm with Tory links, for a contract to provide space for a Canada Employment and Immigration Centre in Drummondville. The Hama proposal was less costly in the final analysis, but Brodilaf eventually won the contract because its offer met certain requirements which Hama knew nothing about.

Last week Liberal MP Jean Lapierre released a March, 1986, letter from Guilbault to LaSalle urging that the contract be awarded to Brodilaf. Lapierre also released another unsigned

letter—which he attributed to Guilbault—which complained about an internal public works department recommendation to award the contract to Hama. Guilbault would not admit that he wrote that letter—or that he had access to confidential departmental documents. But Lapierre complained that Brodilaf had the edge in the contest: “It is a double standard —access for the Conservatives and no access for the others.” Guilbault insisted that he had only done his job: “I am not a lobbyist—I am an MP. If you come to see me, I’m going to do everything.” Meanwhile, principal secretary Roy gave a series of interviews that z raised as many quesQ tions as they answered.

He acknowledged that he discussed the contract several times in 1985 and 1986 with Drummondville Tories and aides to federal ministers. He also held talks with LaSalle’s aides after public works officials recommended that the contract go to Hama. But Roy insisted, “I did not, either directly or indirectly, involve myself in any way in the decision-making process.”

Despite those denials, the uproar continued. Hama served notice that it intends to go to court in May unless it receives $721,264 in damages for the loss of the contract. In a spirited Commons session, New Democrat Svend

Robinson maintained that Roy “should not be getting involved in helping Tories get contracts from Liberals.” Roy, said Mulroney, “is, as a Canadian citizen and as a member of the political process, entitled to talk about contract procedures.”

In an attempt to defuse the issue, public works department officials last week briefed Liberal MPs Lapierre and Don Boudria about the contract. But the ministry’s documents indicated that Treasury Board officials awarded the contract to Brodilaf on LaSalle’s department’s recommendation. They also contained a complaint from a department official that there had been unspecified “political pressures” to give the con-

tract to Brodilaf. Finally, Public Works Minister Mclnnes admitted that federal officials had changed the bidding rules—but had not informed the Liberal contender about the amendments. He said that only his predecessor, LaSalle, could explain if the contract changes were made because of political pressure. “If there was impropriety, it was before I got there,” said Mclnnes.

Those problems came on the heels of last week’s poll, conducted by Angus Reid Associates in early February. The survey concluded that 42 per cent of decided voters would vote Liberal, 33 per cent would support the NDP and a dismal 23 per cent would back the Tories. Some 60 per cent disapproved of Mulroney’s performance as Prime Minister. And perhaps most damaging: fully 50 per cent said that they believed last month’s land speculation controversy involving a major defence contractor, Oerlikon Aerospace Inc.,

was a sign of “widespread corruption” in the upper levels of government. Said Mulroney: “This is not an easy time for the government or for me.”

The Prime Minister’s determined defence of his tarnished government was buttressed by Newfoundland’s fiery and unpredictable John Crosbie, the transport minister. The Canadian Press reported last week that Crosbie and two sons went fishing last summer with executives of two airlines that deal directly with his department. Crosbie admitted taking the trip—with Air Atlantic chairman Craig Dobbin, a friend of Crosbie’s for 15 years, and Donald Carty, president of Canadian Pacific Air Lines. But Crosbie said that his sons paid for the family’s expenses—and he denied that he bestowed favors on the two companies. Indeed, CP later retracted a part of its story which implied that Crosbie had favored one of the firms. “When we are appointed minister, we do not withdraw from the human race,” Crosbie bellowed in the Commons, as fellow Tories cheered.

Conservatives drew further encouragement from signs that both the opposition and the media were growing uneasy about the spate of charges. Both NDP and Liberal MPs said that the scandals were interfering with important policy questions, especially Ottawa’s export tax on softwood lumber. Liberal Leader John Turner warned his caucus at its regular Wednesday meeting that the concentration on scandal was turning voters toward the NDP—since that party had never held federal power and thus appeared untainted. The public, Turner added, would frown on a gloating, scandal-hungry opposition.

Still, many Conservatives continued to insist that they must clean up their government—and their party. Early last week members of the Tories’ Quebec caucus called for a series of major reforms. Among them: a ban on union and corporate donations to political parties, an independent committee to examine judicial appointments, registration of lobbyists and a requirement that only recognized financial institutions be allowed to administer blind trusts established to ensure that ministers are free of conflicts of interest. Quebec Tory MP François Gérin, a longtime champion of reform, said that he believes Mulroney will back those proposals. “It is a good time,” argued Gérin. “Sometimes, to decide to stop smoking, you have to be told by your doctor that if you don’t, you will be in great trouble.”