MEDIA WATCH

Loose ends dangle from the Airbus story

Ministers who have tried to shuffle off responsibility onto their bureaucrats have been given a hard time in both Parliament and the press. Until now.

GEORGE BAIN January 15 1996
MEDIA WATCH

Loose ends dangle from the Airbus story

Ministers who have tried to shuffle off responsibility onto their bureaucrats have been given a hard time in both Parliament and the press. Until now.

GEORGE BAIN January 15 1996

Loose ends dangle from the Airbus story

MEDIA WATCH

Ministers who have tried to shuffle off responsibility onto their bureaucrats have been given a hard time in both Parliament and the press. Until now.

GEORGE BAIN

“Where, oh where, has the Airbus gone;

Where, oh where, can it be?...”

For a while there, when it was about who got how much money for performing some jiggery-pokery to help the European Airbus consortium sell airplanes to Air Canada, the story was the biggest in the land. Unsourced reports turned up everywhere, saying Canadians, then some Canadian politicians, finally a Canadian political leader (that last on CBCTV) were about to be exposed in a kickback scandal.

We have 13 political leaders in Canada— two in the territories, 10 provincial premiers and a prime minister. As only one of those would ever be within reach of any influence on any Airbus-Air Canada dealings, the name might as well have been spelled out: M-U-LR-O-N-E-Y. Someone, obviously no friend of Brian Mulroney, but with friends in the department of justice, the RCMP, or both, was planting information in the media.

Various large broadcast and print entities were at bursting point, holding their breath for fear of saying the name and risking a suit for libel, when lawyers for Mulroney announced on Nov. 18 that he was suing the government of Canada for $50 million for defamation.

As the fresh rush of excitement over that died down, the story as a whole slipped sideways and downward into one about how in hell the former prime minister got a copy of the damning letter that the Canadian justice department had written the Swiss justice department. It was a formal letter, requesting Swiss assistance in nailing Mulroney’s hide to the wall. However, his suing the justice department proved less sexy to political journalists than efforts the other way around to put him, their No. 1 hate object, in the lockup. As a result, the story now is as good as dead, loose ends hanging out all over it. A pity.

For instance, there is still to be fleshed out the wispy story of Justice Minister Allan Rock’s part in the affair. All we know is that Rock, early on, said there wasn’t any “his” part. At that, all those tooth-and-claw investigative reporters in the parliamentary press gallery shrugged and said, “Well, if he says ‘no,’ that’s that,” and returned to their ruminations on the less demanding question, ‘Whither are we drifting?”

Still, it is a fundamental of our parliamentary democracy that a minister is responsible for all that is done in his or her department. Responsibility for wrong, or questionable, decisions cannot be shuffled off to bureaucrats, or the state of the moon, or the luck of the draw. Ministers who have tried that, or been suspected of it, have been given a hard time in both Parliament and the press. Until now.

Can anyone really and truly believe that a letter accusing the previous prime minister of being a crook and asking for help in sending him to jail was signed by a lone civil servant in the justice department and sent to the Swiss justice department, without its having been seen, far less discussed, by the minister of justice, the Prime Minister, and probably the whole cabinet?

Notwithstanding that the whole business on the government/police side of the affair is richly suspect, the reporting has spoken endlessly of that letter containing “allegations.” My dictionary says an allegation is “an assertion made without substantial proof.” The letter was written in German, and an unofficial translation prepared for Mulroney’s lawyers—which has been everyone’s basis for reporting or commenting on it—characterizes what it says about three matters that it cites as “proof.” The information, the letter says, is “proof... of a persisting plot/conspiracy by M. Mulroney [and two others] who defrauded the Canadian government of millions of dollars.” That is a mere allegation?

No, that is not an allegation, but a charge, an accusation, and, offered as a statement of fact, a lie. If there was proof or anything like it, Ottawa would not be trying to seduce the Swiss into a fishing expedition.

Another question: Anyone here remember Gerda Munsinger? Jean Chrétien would; he was a quick and ambitious young MP when her name came up in Parliament in 1966. He would recall that Lester B. Pearson, his prime minister, had asked the RCMP commissioner several years earlier if he had any information about improprieties by any MP in the previous 10 years.

The commissioner, obviously a man who knew a hint when he heard one, produced an impropriety with bells on; the associate minister of national defence in the previous Conservative government, Pierre Sévigny, had been bed-guesting Munsinger, a German woman who was believed by the RCMP to be a Soviet spy. (The RCMP, like the FBI, was hot on Russian spies at the time.)

Some reporters close to the Liberal government knew about this bomb the government was holding. However, it was only when the government was being hounded by the Conservative Opposition that it dropped its payload—with a calculated slip of the tongue, the minister of justice of the time, Lucien Cardin, revealed Munsinger’s name in the House of Commons, setting off Canada’s first major parliamentary sex scandal.

It seems fairly evident that in 1995, someone, or some ones, possibly even reporters with good connections, knew the Chrétien government had what it thought was a similar bomb to use to distract public attention if it faced a bad patch. The Pearson government’s bad patch was running into an array of scandals. The Chrétien government’s, now, is over its botching of the Quebec referendum.

If we are having a replay of the Sixties, it would help if the reporters of the Nineties were to uncover more of the substance of the story by their own efforts, to balance all the earlier spoon-fed stuff from unidentified sources. Cherchez la femme was the cry in the Sixties—and The Toronto Star found her, in Munich. There is no Gerda Munsinger in this Airbus business, of course—not in the same role, anyway. But there is no telling what the reporters might find if they tried.