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Trudeau's search for new Governor-General raises ghosts of Canada's scandalous past

Image: Flickr/Canada 2020

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This is not a new story -- it goes back to 2008.

In that year, the quintessential Toronto, true blue lawyer, David Johnston, received a call asking if he would write the terms of reference for a public inquiry.

Prime Minister Harper had, with considerable reluctance, committed himself to an investigation into allegations that his Conservative predecessor, Brian Mulroney, had taken illegal payments from the German lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber and the investigation threatened to turn into a media circus. Johnston, the careful lawyer and quiet compromiser, agreed to define the inquiry's parameters: what questions should be asked, and which issues were out of bounds?

 

The undisputed facts

In 2010, Rick Salutin wrote this in The Globe and Mail, a version the facts no one contradicts:

In 1997, former prime minister Brian Mulroney received $2.1-million from the federal government over a case in which he'd been mentioned in leaked RCMP documents as a suspect in a corruption matter. He denied under oath having much to do with a bagman and scamp named Karlheinz Schreiber. But it later emerged that he'd taken large amounts of cash from him that he kept secret. Under the pressures of minority government, more details surfaced until Prime Minister Stephen Harper reluctantly agreed to a public inquiry. But, crucially, he called on David Johnston to define its limits.

He set them narrowly, excluding any examination of the role of Airbus, a huge European company Karlheinz Schreiber acted for, and which got a $1.8-billion order from Air Canada while it was still a public firm in the Mulroney years. Airbus gave Karlheinz Schreiber more than $20-million of the Canadian funds it received to distribute as he saw fit among people who had made the deal happen. 

The real question for the inquiry was: What did Brian Mulroney get the cash for, and was it connected to Airbus? The inquiry was prevented from asking because, said David Johnston, that was "well-tilled ground." But it wasn't really. The RCMP hadn't been able to make Airbus officials testify, for instance; an inquiry could. And when striking new evidence emerged from a Mulroney crony at the inquiry, it wasn't pursued due to the narrow terms. [Emphasis mine -- RM]

(Incidentally, Johnston received $1,400 per day to do this report and when Harper saw Johnston's work, he said, according to his biographer, John Ibbitson: "Whatever we paid him for this, it wasn't enough.")

Harper has never denied making that remark showing that, if nothing else, he was more honest than Mulroney -- though that is damning with very faint praise indeed.

Well-tilled ground

Andrew Coyne, after the Salutin article, came unconvincingly to Johnston's defence but agreed that these were the facts:

It's true that it was Johnston, as adviser to the Prime Minister on the terms of reference for the Oliphant inquiry, who recommended against including the Airbus scandal in its mandate, a decision that looks all the more baffling in light of the judge's findings: not only that Brian Mulroney took hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, shortly after leaving office, from the very man from whom he was accused of taking bribes while in office, but that he lied about it, up to and including his appearance before the inquiry. 

Regardless of whether Mulroney was personally involved, the circumstances surrounding the Airbus deal are so suspicious that, even 22 years later, they cry out for an inquiry -- not in spite of the passage of time but because of it. Johnston's reasoning, that Airbus, having once been the subject of an RCMP investigation, was "well-tilled ground," is simply unsupported by the facts: the RCMP had only just begun their investigation when it was shut down by the leaking of the infamous "Swiss letter," a calamity from which it never recovered. [Emphasis added -RM] 

Why do I raise this now, nearly six years after the events?

Because the facts are more important now than they ever were. And there are many. And they are a serious blot on the national escutcheon.

Cleaning House

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked Canadians for their views on who should replace Mr. Johnston when he retires. It's a damned sight more important that he concentrate on the process by which this important part of the constitution is appointed. We've been fortunate that major constitutional problems have not emerged from our ongoing slap-happy, politically inspired appointments.

I look at the case of Mike Duffy, swamped with 31 charges, all relating to rank political goings-on in a House of Parliament which has no other noticeable purpose. The trial lasted 62 days -- not including all of the highly stressful days the court wasn't sitting -- only to have all charges thrown out contemptuously by the trial judge.

Then I see Brian Mulroney, treated and consulted with as if he were an honoured former head of government, invited to all manner of Official Functions, acting as if he had always served his country with the utmost integrity. "Lyin' Brian," as he is aptly called, makes Richard Nixon look like a choirboy in comparison yet spends his days basking in flattery and honour, always looking for more.

Tough on crime

I then consider the attitude of the "hang 'em high" Conservative Party towards crime by the rabble -- the Supreme Court of Canada will be busy for years tossing out their flint-hearted laws. While those sanctimonious bastards would jail the poor who steal bread, they compromised the office of Queen's Representative in order to save a crook like Mulroney from even a trial -- a man who cheated the public of more than $2 million with a phoney libel claim, to say nothing of taking $300,000 in a paper bag from Schreiber, another crook. Apart from all else, how is it possible to libel a man like that?

I consider the process for selecting the Governor-General. I don't say that Mr. Johnston made his recommendations to emasculate the Mulroney hearing in exchange for the Governor Generalship. There's a little matter of absence of proof here. The problem is, it sure as hell looks that way to a lot of people and you can't blame them for seeing it that way. It just mustn't appear as if the Governor-Generalship might have been a pay-off but that thought crossed a lot of minds.

David Johnston is a skilled, successful lawyer, an academic, a man everyone considered to be highly qualified -- yet, somehow, he expected people to accept the question as to whether or not Mulroney got a payoff from Karlheinz Schreiber as a "well-tilled field".  It's hard to believe -- no it is impossible to believe that Mr. Johnston really thought that and my theory is that he's so wired into the eastern Canadian establishment, he couldn't bring himself to upset the apple cart when, with the stroke of a pen, he could put his friends out of their misery.

Three possibilities

There are really only three possibilities -- that there was a deal; that, contrary to all the evidence, Mr. Johnston is as dumb as a sackful of hammers; or that he acted like all Central Canadian establishment people, heirs to the Family Compact tradition, and put the stability of society as he knew it ahead of the need to bring one of his own to justice. Any one of these possibilities is as good a reason as any to find a better way to select the Governor-General.

Mr. Johnston may not have had a deal in mind but former Prime Minister Stephen Harper certainly did as demonstrated by his remarks about how well the party was rewarded for the amount of money Mr. Johnston received. If you let that sink in a bit, the realization strikes you that the corruption is so widespread and so endemic to the governing classes that those involved don't even think about it anymore.

Where was the media?

Most of all, however, this sordid story tells us something about us as Canadians and how little we demand of those who tell us the news.

This should have been a major scandal from the get-go and explored thoroughly by all of media to the fullest.

Instead, there was the Salutin story in The Globe and Mail (a 20-year employee, he was fired shortly after); a couple of passive accounts in other papers and the apologia by Coyne in Maclean's magazine. For the little value it was, I wrote the story here in stark terms, had a hell of a time getting it published (not by this paper) and, of course, it wasn't read where important people live. 

Perhaps it goes too far to say we get the Media we deserve but we care so little when the largest newspaper chain, in Canada, Postmedia has a written mutual masturbation agreement with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers; it scarcely raises an eyebrow that the Vancouver Province is a partner of Resource Works, no more than shills for Woodfibre LNG; we put up with newspapers that endorse the Harper Government almost to a paper.

This article originally appeared on the Common Sense Canadian. It is reprinted here with permission.

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Image: Flickr/Canada 2020

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