NATIONAL

Prime ministers and their friends

Harper, among others, has ignored a lot about Airbus over the years

ANDREW COYNE November 26 2007
NATIONAL

Prime ministers and their friends

Harper, among others, has ignored a lot about Airbus over the years

ANDREW COYNE November 26 2007

Prime ministers and their friends

NATIONAL

Harper, among others, has ignored a lot about Airbus over the years

ANDREW COYNE

Scandal time again. Once more the country is consumed with tales of politicians taking envelopes full of cash from shady businessmen. As pressure for a public inquiry grows, the air is full of official denials. And of course the question on everyone’s lips is: what did the whole country know, and when did we all know it?

Well, no. The script for these things, sanctioned by long usage, calls for the opposition to demand of whoever’s in charge, be he president or prime minister: what did he know and when did he know it? Wasn’t Stephen Harper sent a letter by Karlheinz Schreiber seven months ago, containing many of the allegations in last week’s sensational affidavit—among them, that Schreiber had struck a deal with Brian Mulroney, two days before the former prime minister left office in 1993, that would see him provide Mulroney with “some funds” in exchange for Mulroney’s services, notably in lobbying the new government? Hadn’t Harper been sent another letter to the same effect just six weeks ago? How

could he pretend he was unaware of these allegations until last week? Are we to take seriously his office’s explanation, that the letters never reached his desk?

All very good questions, and all more or less beside the point. What I want to know is not whether the Prime Minister reads rambling private letters from fugitive international arms dealers, but whether he reads the Globe and Mail, or watches the CBC. There was more than enough on the public record that ought to have excited his interest in “protecting the office of the prime minister,” long before Schreiber’s lawsuit against Mulroney—he alleges the former prime minister did nothing to earn the money he paid him—came to court. That Schreiber made payments to Mulroney totalling $300,000 shortly after he left office has been public knowledge for four years, ever since their existence was first reported in the Globe. How the payments were made—in cash, in envelopes, in hotel rooms—has been known for nearly as long, as detailed in William Kaplan’s book A Secret Trial.

It was likewise public knowledge that Mulroney, notwithstanding this relationship, had later claimed, under examination in his famous 1995 libel suit against the government of Canada, that “he had never had any dealings”

with Schreiber. Mulroney had sued the government for alleging, in a letter to the Swiss government, that he had taken money from Schreiber in connection with the 1988 Air Canada purchase of 34 passenger jets from Airbus Industrie. It is unlikely, to say the least, that the government would have agreed to settle the case, with the payment of $2.1 million and an apology, had it known of the payments.

All of this, as I say, is old news. It would all have been well known to Harper, not just before his dramatic admission last Friday that the Mulroney-Schreiber affair might indeed warrant a public inquiry, but as early as 2003—before the merger of the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance, before Harper’s election as leader of the new Conservative party, before he chose, the better to consummate the merger, to take Mulroney into his counsel, and to embrace him publicly. The former prime minister of Canada is acknowledged to have taken $300,000 in cash from a man of Schreiber’s repute—a prolific and self-confessed dispenser of bribes to public officials, he is currently in jail, awaiting extradition to Germany on charges of fraud and tax evasion—and no alarm bells rang. Business as usual.

This coziness continued, even as the revelations mounted. It has been public knowledge since February 2006 that the cash Schreiber passed to Mulroney was Airbus cash—as the CBC program the fifth estate reported, it was paid out of a Swiss bank account, code-named “Britan,” one of several accounts Schreiber set up to handle the millions of dollars in secret commissions he was paid on the Airbus sale. There’s no way of knowing whether Mulroney was aware

IT IS PERPLEXING HOW SOMEONE OF SCHREIBER’S OBVIOUS ODOUR MANAGED TO GAIN SUCH ACCESS TO THE CORRIDORS OF POWER

of this, nor is there any evidence that he played any part in the Airbus deal. But still: was this not at least cause for concern? Even after it had been reported that Mulroney had gone to extraordinary lengths to cover up the payments—Schreiber claims he was encouraged to sign an affidavit asserting he had never paid Mulroney anything—the Conservatives continued to stonewall, culminating in Harper’s extraordinary threat, just days before accepting the need for an inquiry, to launch retaliatory inquiries into his Liberal predecessors.

So Harper is tied to Mulroney, as Mulro-

ney is tied to Schreiber, not by any opposition insinuations or press vendettas, but by their own appalling lapses in judgment. Harper says he was shocked to see his name appear in Schreiber’s affidavit—allegedly, Schreiber provided Mulroney with a letter, which Mulroney was to show to Harper at a later meeting as proof the two were “on good terms.” A dubious story, perhaps, but the possibility would not have arisen had Harper not been on such close terms with Mulroney. Harper says he did not ask Mulroney at the meeting about his dealings with Schreiber. Fine. Did he ask him about them at any other time? Harper says the fact that Schreiber’s latest allegations were made under oath gave them greater weight than before. But Schreiber could have been put under oath at any time in the last four years: just sit him down and have him write out what he knows in an affidavit.

Yet neither the Conser-

vatives nor, strangely, the Liberal government before them seemed remotely interested in finding out what he knows—certainly not compared to the alacrity with which they have sought his extradition. Indeed, they have studied not to know much of the case at all. Justice Department officials reportedly considered, once those mysterious envelopes full of cash came to light, an attempt to recover the $2.1-million settlement. Nothing came of it. Civil servants prepared reports on Schreiber and Airbus for various ministers, yet no one read them. One is left with the distinct impression that

the government’s approach to the whole mess amounted to hoping Schreiber would, quite literally, go away.

But then, they could be forgiven for indulging this hope. If the Conservatives have shown little interest in pursuing the matter, it is perhaps because, for the last four years, neither has anyone else: not the police, not the opposition, not most of the media. We have all been sitting on a powder keg, and yet everyone has affected not to notice. One might speculate as to the reasons for this uncharacteristic quietude—libel chill, in the wake of Mulroney’s lawsuit and the government’s apology; embarrassment, after so much ink and reputation had been invested in his exoneration; a certain righting of the scales, after the mauling he took while in

IN FACT, WE KNOW QUITE A LOT ABOUT WHO KNEW WHAT ABOUT AIRBUS, AND WHEN THEY KNEW IT

office—but it remains one of the more remarkable instances of collective myopia on record. Kaplan’s book was scarcely reviewed. Fresh revelations passed without comment. Mulroney, meanwhile, has been feted at society functions, praised for his environmental record, celebrated at book launches.

Ah well. Perhaps an inquiry will decide that there is a perfectly innocent explanation for all of this: why the cash, why the secrecy, what Mulroney did for the money, what he did with it, how $300,000 in cash equalled “had never had any dealings,” and so on. But the questions raised by this affair extend well

beyond Mulroney. Nearly 20 years after the Airbus deal was signed, and 12 years after the first definitive reports that secret commissions were being paid, in explicit violation of the contract, we still don’t know who got the rest of the money, or for what. Schreiber is known to have been paid some $20 million, $600,000 per plane. His bank records show that about half this amount was doled out, by means of his labyrinth of bank accounts, to various “Canadian friends.” Some of these are known. Some are not.

Equally perplexing is how someone of Schreiber’s obvious odour was able to gain such access to the corridors of power. A former justice minister, a former solicitor general, even a former Supreme Court justice numbered amongst his friends and clients,

to say nothing of his close and well-documented relationship with Mulroney and his circle, dating back to the early 1980s.

In broader terms, then, the issue is not just Mulroney, or Schreiber, or Airbus. It’s the ability of this country to hold people in high places to account. Had a former president of the United States been found taking cash from a known bribe merchant, six congressional committees would have been convened on the spot. Years too late, a public inquiry would seem the least we could do. M

andrew.coyneamacleans.rogers.com