Cover

Scandalo us!

Will the multi-million-dollar sponsorship mess stick to Paul Martin? JOHN GEDDES reports

February 23 2004
Cover

Scandalo us!

Will the multi-million-dollar sponsorship mess stick to Paul Martin? JOHN GEDDES reports

February 23 2004

Scandalo us!

Cover

Will the multi-million-dollar sponsorship mess stick to Paul Martin? JOHN GEDDES reports

PRIME MINISTER Paul Martin, to his credit, doesn’t have much experience in coping with scandal. It shows. He and his close-knit team of advisers had months to plot strategy for the release last week of auditor general Sheila Fraser’s explosive report into the federal sponsorship program in Quebec. Yet Martin’s carefully prepared answer to what was bound to be the first media question on the report was a misstep. Asked what he knew, back when he was Jean Chrétien’s finance minister, about the corrupt misuse of millions in sponsorship funds, Martin categorically denied he had any inkling of what was happening. “I didn’t know anything about it,” he said, first in French and then in English, adding later for good measure, “I have no idea what was going on here.”

Martin clearly hoped to shift attention from how much he knew then to what he was doing about it now. There’s no doubt that

his response to Fraser’s report was his strong suit: a judicial inquiry into the whole mess, a “special counsel” to recover taxpayers’ money improperly given away, and new whistle-blower protection for bureaucrats who expose future wrongdoing. It gave him plenty to say when asked, “What are you going to do about this?” But, as Martin soon learned, that’s not the question at the heart of a political scandal. The one that matters is always the double-barrelled query that brought down Richard Nixon—what did he know and when did he know it?

BY BLAMING the Chrétien regime, Martin is making this a political scandal unlike any other

By categorically claiming he knew nothing, the Prime Minister did the opposite of putting that classic question to rest. A blanket assertion of ignorance just wasn’t going to wash. After all, Martin had not only been finance minister during the sponsorship skulduggery between 1997 and 2001 uncovered by Fraser, but also a senior Quebec Liberal. Could such an extensive abuse of the public purse in his own backyard escape his notice entirely? The opposition line of attack started from the premise that Martin must have known more than he was letting on—and failed to speak up at the time. “Was that stony silence a result of the fact that he was so anxious to be prime minister that he turned a blind eye to the corruption that the government was involved in?” asked Conservative MP Peter MacKay in one salvo of many lobbed Martin’s way in the House.

After two days under such heavy fire, Martin called a news conference to clarify his position. This time, he patiently explained that he had suspected merely that there were administrative problems in the program—until May 2002, when the auditor general issued an earlier damning report on three sponsorship contracts. “That is when I began to understand that what had occurred went far beyond administrative failures and involved possible criminal conduct,” Martin said. More important, though, was his new explanation for why he knew so little until so late: Martin said he was kept in the dark by the Chrétien regime, which regarded him as a rival and a threat.

By framing the issue as an extension of his long-standing feud with Chrétien, Martin made this a scandal unlike any other. Past corruption controversies have pitted the governing party against those in opposition. This one now has the additional dimension of a rancorous split between Liberals. “I can’t recall anything like it,” said John Wright, senior vice-president of the polling firm Ipsos-Reid Corp. “It’s the current regime verses the ancien régime. This could be a very messy affair.”

And its outcome is all the more difficult to predict. The Martin Liberals are trying to cast themselves as a new guard, sweeping away the more dubious aspects of the Chrétien era. Treasury Board President Reg Alcock, one of the key cabinet ministers assigned to forge policies in response to Fraser’s findings, told Maclean’s that Martin has made it clear he wants an open, nononsense approach to finding out what went wrong and fixing it. “It was not,” Alcock added pointedly, “the instinct of the former administration.”

Putting distance between Martin and Chrétien will not be difficult. That gap has been, in many respects, the leitmotif of federal politics ever since the two Liberal alpha males clashed in the 1989-1990 leadership race won handily by Chrétien. They went on to share power, a partnership built on tension rather than real trust, until friction between them got too hot, and Martin exited cabinet in June 2002. But while Martin has an airtight case for saying he wasn’t part of Chrétien’s Quebec inner circle, that’s not the same as establishing that he didn’t have enough information to act. In fact, on the very day after Martin said he only began to suspect the worst when Fraser tabled her May 2002 report, a letter surfaced from a Liberal official who wrote to him on Feb. 7,2002, pleading with him to get to the bottom of “growing rumours” about the program.

In the eruption of gleeful opposition outrage and huge headlines last week, Martin’s political future was repeatedly said to be at stake. But that could turn out to be an overstatement. Even the biggest scandals—in the eyes of pundits and political insiders— often fail to register the same way with the public. On Aug. 17,1998, Bill Clinton’s agonies over the Monica Lewinsky affair seemed to reach their worst point when the U.S. president gave an equivocal apology speech that commentators quickly judged hopelessly inadequate. Americans saw things differently; Clinton’s strong approval ratings held, even ticking up.

In his fall 2000 election campaign, Chrétien was dogged by reports of his involvement with tainted financial dealings around his hometown of Shawinigan, Que. With the revelation that he had repeatedly lobbied the federal Business Development Bank of Canada’s president to lend money to a hotel owner in his riding, the affair threatened to take on the odour of a full-blown scandal. But, of course, voters handed Chrétien a comfortable majority anyway, and his personal popularity remained high until his retirement late last year. “If a government is already weak, scandal has the potential to knock it off,” said University of British Columbia political science professor Allan Tupper. “But if a government is strong, the vote won’t revolve exclusively around it.”

What’s the lesson from politicians like Clinton and Chrétien, who successfully ride out the storms of scandal? One key is clearly to be well enough regarded on other fronts that the controversy doesn’t become the factor that defines the politician in the popular imagination. Chrétien’s reputation as an honest patriot, summed up neatly in the title of his autobiography, Straight From the Heart, was firmly embedded long before the coinage “Shawinigate” entered the political lexicon. Clinton’s unparalleled skills as a political communicator made him a tough target, combined with the fact that Americans—long acclimatized to reports of his personal foibles—found the Lewinsky revelations less than shocking.

Martin, of course, is in a very different situation. But, like Clinton and Chrétien, he has the advantage of an established rep-

utation that may be hard to dislodge. His long tenure as finance minister was marked by little scandal, with the exception of an embarrassing episode in March 2002 when a Martin fundraiser in Calgary was revealed to also be a paid adviser to the Finance Department on tax policy for the oil and gas industry. With only that relatively minor blemish on a clean record, Martin may be able to go into an election, which he is still widely expected to call this spring, asking Canadian voters to view him as the solution to the sort of corruption behind the sponsorship scandal, not part of the cause. “This could in other circumstances sink a government,” said Wright. “But people will be asked one key ballot question: do you believe Paul Martin didn’t have anything to do with it, and has taken the steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again? It’s an opportunity for him to build himself a platform.”

MARTIN Liberals have cast themselves as a new guard, ready to sweep away the dubious aspects of the old era

to a platform.” UBC’s Tupper says the strength of Martin’s position lies in the inquiry and reforms he announced to address Fraser’s findings. “Nobody is talking about the inadequacy of his response,” he said. In fact, the package hasn’t been the subject of much opposition attention. Liberal strategists close to the Prime Minister are staking a lot on their expectation that eventually Martin will get credit for launching a judicial inquiry and agreeing to testify before it. In so doing, they hope he’ll ease those what-did-he-knowwhen suspicions. “It may well be that this thing stays in the news for a long time; it may be that the inquiry turns over a lot of uncomfortable facts,” said one senior Martin adviser. “But at least we haven’t put ourselves in a position of anyone saying we’re not prepared to deal with the truth.” Especially if that truth turns out to be most damaging not to them, but to their old enemies in the Chrétien camp. ÏÏ]