CANADA

TRADING BLAME

POLITICIANS AND BUREAUCRATS CLASH AT AN INQUIRY INTO HOW IRAQ’S MASHAT GOT INTO CANADA

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 17 1991
CANADA

TRADING BLAME

POLITICIANS AND BUREAUCRATS CLASH AT AN INQUIRY INTO HOW IRAQ’S MASHAT GOT INTO CANADA

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 17 1991

TRADING BLAME

CANADA

In front of a standing-room-only crowd in the Railway Committee Room of the House of Commons, the bitter personal attacks and charged confrontations largely overshadowed the subject under debate. After the Canadian government acknowledged last month that it had expedited the granting of landed-immigrant status to former top-ranking Iraqi diplomat Mohamed alMashat, many politicians from all parties, as well as some senior civil servants, said that the decision was a mistake. But last week, as a parliamentary inquiry continued looking into the process that led to that decision, it became clear that the politicians and bureaucrats involved agreed on very little else. And the tone of their disagreement frequently became rancorous. In one fiery exchange, Liberal MP John Nunziata told Clerk of the Privy Council Paul Tellier—the country’s highest-ranking civil servant—that his role in the matter was a “disgrace.” Flushing angrily, the normally cool Tellier told Nunziata to “shut up.” That incident, and several other hostile exchanges, raised even more troubling issues.

All parties to the controversy acknowledge that Mashat—who, as Iraq’s ambassador to Washington on the eve of the Gulf War, actively supported his country’s invasion of Kuwait—entered Canada legally and the authorities cannot now force him to leave.

But since his arrival became public last month, the debate has shifted from the propriety of his entry to how much senior cabinet ministers knew about the decision to expedite his entry—and when they knew it. Several Tory ministers, including Barbara McDougall, immigration minister at the time of Mashat’s entry and now minister of external affairs, have publicly blamed the controversy on faulty decisions by civil servants.

Some senior bureaucrats and analysts say that they are concerned that the Tories have crossed the tacit line that traditionally separates partisan politics and the professionally neutral public service. Said history professor

POLITICIANS AND BUREAUCRATS CLASH AT AN INQUIRY INTO HOW IRAQ’S MASHAT GOT INTO CANADA

Michael Bliss of the University of Toronto: “Blaming civil servants for your mess-ups is the most cowardly form of politics.” For his part, Svend Robinson, an NDP member of the parliamentary committee examining the sequence of events, called the Conservative tac-

tic “the sleaziest form of buck passing.”

And if nothing else, it was plain last week that political judgments had overlaid much of the handling of the controversy over Mashat— if not his original entry. In its original version of events, a statement released on May 14, the government laid the main responsibility for what McDougall described as “a whole series of errors of judgment” on two men: Raymond Chrétien, associate undersecretary of state for external affairs, and David Daubney, chief of

staff for then-External Affairs Minister Joe Clark. The statement added that “Mr. Chrétien has apologized” for his mistake. At last week’s inquiry,

Daubney, a former Tory MP, acknowledged that he had not told Clark about Mashat’s application. But he also expressed his belief that he had been singled out for blame in order to provide “political symmetry” to the ministerial criticism of Chrétien, who is a nephew of Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien. He added outside the inquiry: “Because Mr. Chrétien had been isolated as an official who had made an error in this matter, given his name and relationship to the leader of the Opposition, I think there was some sensitivity.”

But Chrétien bluntly rejected both the Tories’ account of events—and any error of judgment on his own part.

And another senior official, deputy clerk of the Privy Council Glen Shortliffe, supported Chrétien’s assertion during separate testimony to the committee. Shortliffe said that following a meeting on May 13 attended by McDougall and Clark, he had presented Chrétien with a draft of the statement to be issued the following day, in which Chrétien’s apology for his failure “to exert effective control over this sensitive case” would be noted. But last week, Chrétien told the inquiry that he had never agreed to the version of events recounted in the statement. In particular, he said, he never apologized, because “I never felt I had anything to apologize for.”

Testifying before the inquiry late in the week, Clark, now minister of constitutional affairs, also acknowledged that, in fact, Chrétien had not apologized. But Clark insisted that he should have. “I wasn’t told and I should have been told,” Clark said, “and I think it would be better for everybody if he said, ‘Yup, I made a mistake on this.’ ”

The inquiry found other discrepancies, as well, among the accounts offered by senior government figures about the sequence of events. One of the most glaring was between statements made by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney last month in the Commons and others by Tellier last week. In a statement in the Commons on May 15, Mulroney declared that Tellier had “indicated his disapproval with the issuance of a visa to that individual [Ma-

shat].” Mulroney added that “Mr. Tellier, speaking for the Privy Council Office, said: ‘Do not admit him.’ ” But Tellier told the inquiry last week that he never gave that instruction. He added: “I surely did not say that the visa should not be issued. The Privy Council Office said he should not receive preferential treatment—he should not jump the queue.”

For their part, opposition MPs clearly sensed an opportunity to severely embarrass the Tories—at the expense, in some instances, of senior bureaucrats. Indeed, the opposition’s

questioning of witnesses before the committee was exceptionally hostile. Nunziata, in particular, openly berated several witnesses. His exchange with Tellier arose after Nunziata asserted that the civil servant was aiding government ministers in an attempt to cover up the controversy over Mashat. At another point, Nunziata derisively claimed that former solicitor general Pierre Cadieux—who was the first minister to learn of Mashat’s arrival—was demoted to his present position at Fitness, Youth and Amateur Sport because he mishandled the affair. A shaken Cadieux recommended that committee members ask Mulroney for his response.

Senior Tories, who acknowledge that the controversy is damaging the government, were plainly intent on limiting the scope for harm. In fact, the government’s efforts to restrict public awareness of the hearings drew criticism even from some Tories. Although the hearings attracted an unusually large number of onlookers—including Edward Goldenberg, Jean Chrétien’s principal secretary, as well as most members of the Liberals’ front bench—

and audiotapes of the proceedings were broadcast on television, the Tory majority on the committee blocked a proposal to allow cameras to record the testimony. At that, Hamilton Tory MP Geoff Scott, a former broadcaster himself, objected: “You can hear it, read it— but you cannot see it.”

It was clear last week that relations were strained not only between the Tories and the civil service, but also between the bureaucrats and the opposition. And the unseemly exchanges that erupted repeatedly during the

testimony prompted some observers to conclude that the hearings might serve only to further erode public confidence in federal institutions generally. Said Bliss, for one: “No party wins here. The whole system loses.”

Still, the greatest long-term damage may be to the already fragile relationship between the government and the ministry of external affairs. Officials in that department have long prided themselves on their belief that theirs was the federal bureaucracy least affected by partisan politics. Now, some External officials say privately that they feel they are being drawn into—and blamed for—a controversy that is increasingly partisan in tone. “Long after the public forgets this, we will remember,” one senior official in the department told Maclean’s. “It will not be easy working with [ministers] who you think may turn on you at any time.” Whatever light the committee sheds on the Mashat affair, that is a legacy that may prove difficult to dispel.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

BRUCE WALLACE