Canada’s Liberal Party, which since the 1970s has both harbored in its upper echelons and implanted in the federal bureaucracy a virulent anti-American bias, is in deep political trouble and could be driven from office before summer.
The cause is as old as the country itself – graft and corruption in Quebec – the same affliction that defeated Canada’s first government soon after the country was confederated in 1867 and has periodically beset its governments ever since. But this time the amounts involved are astronomically bigger and the misappropriation of public money far more blatant.
The current case goes back to 1995 when Quebec came within a hair’s breadth (50.5 percent to 49.5 percent) of voting itself out of Canada. In response, the Liberal government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien launched what eventually became a $400 million campaign to enhance the federal presence in the renegade province.
Just how this money was to be spent was never clearly spelled out. What it wound up enhancing was the bank accounts of a number of prominent Liberal ad agencies, along with several party backroom manipulators, one of them a close friend of Chretien himself. Another beneficiary was the federal Liberal Party, which received generous donations from the recipients of even more generous federal contracts.
None of this would have come to light, however, were it not for a bitter feud that broke out between two top Quebec Liberals. One was Chretien, who had won clear majorities in three successive federal elections and keenly wanted to make that an unprecedented four. The other was his star finance minister, Paul Martin, just as keen to accomplish what his longtime cabinet minister father could never do – win the top job. Martin knew that if Chretien ran again, he (Martin) would be too old next time around. It was now or never. The battle became public, vicious and contagious. Martin quit the Chretien Cabinet and the fight divided the party.
In the course of all this, mistakes were made, one particularly calamitous. It concerned the appointment of the auditor-general, the officer charged by Parliament with reviewing the way the government spends its money. It’s a delicate job; the appointee is expected to walk a fine line between finding nothing wrong and finding too much wrong. Sheila Fraser seemed ideal. She was frequently described as “motherly,” kindly, composed, in other words, safe. This proved a grave miscalculation – either because the Liberals didn’t know enough about Sheila Fraser, or perhaps because they didn’t know enough about mothers.
When Ms. Fraser turned her attention to the so-called “sponsorship program,” disaster followed. Instead of the usual discreetly vague allusions, her report in May 2002 was replete with names, dates and weather conditions, which compelled the police to lay 18 charges against a Quebec ad executive, involving more than $2 million. This was barely a beginning.
Three months after that, Chretien resigned, Martin took over, Mother Fraser loosed another bombshell report, and the presidents of three crown corporations – a federal bank, Canada Post and Via Rail (Canada’s Amtrak) – were all fired by a jubilant Martin, who felt secure in his claim that he had had nothing to do with the sponsorship program. It was all Chretien’s fault. So he confidently appointed a Quebec judge, John Gomery, to conduct a judicial inquiry.
With that, he called an election last June and discovered to his horror that the public could not believe that all the rot had departed with Chretien. Much still clung to the Liberal Party. Hence the Liberals’ healthy parliamentary majority vanished, and Martin went back as a minority government, meaning that the opposition could force an election.
No one expected one soon, however, until Judge Gomery got inconveniently busy – so busy that lawyers for Chretien, now a private citizen, tried to have him removed as demonstrably prejudiced against their client. This failed. Then last month, Gomery called a retinue of Quebec ad agency executives. Their tales, sometimes told amidst their tears, described payoffs, kickbacks, fake invoices, thousands left in unmarked envelopes on restaurant tables, etc. This so appalled the public that Martin last week was left stammering that he still had “a moral right to govern.”
An election call now seems imminent. Whether the rival Conservatives can win, however, is far from assured. One charge against them, hurled by the Liberals: that they are pro-American and, worse still, pro-George W. Bush. Since they don’t deny the charge, an American president could become a central issue in a Canadian election campaign.