The ancient Greeks believed that those who the gods wished to punish, they first put above others. Brian Mulroney got his comeuppance in front of a House of Commons ethics committee last week. Mulroney, it appears, thought he was above the law. Not for him legal niceties about keeping records, making bank deposits, recording expenses, billing clients, and paying taxes. Cash — one thousand dollar bills — would suffice.

It gets worse.

According to his testimony, Mulroney was making international representations on behalf of Thyssen Canada (part of the ThyssenKrupp Group of Germany). He had been hired as an international consultant by Thyssen Canada president Karlheinz Schrieber (promoted from lobbyist in Mulroneyâe(TM)s account) to explore interest abroad in purchasing armoured vehicles made in Canada.

Mulroney had two problems as a tank salesman. First, his company was not manufacturing the product he was supposed to sell; indeed, his own government had refused to back production. The so-called Bear Head project had been killed by his own cabinet, and it was unlikely to ever go ahead. Second, he spoke on behalf of Thyssen to the presidents of Russia and France, Boris Yeltsin and François Mitterand (and unnamed high level Americans), he was trying to sell tanks to countries that produced more than they needed, and were unlikely to ever want to buy from Canada.

Sensing what the committee was being told, NDP member Pat Martin asked the former prime minister, if when he visited the president of Italy, he had tried to sell him pasta machines. Bloc member Serge Ménard, a former Quebec Justice Minister, said to Mulroney, the one thousand dollar bills, you put into your home safe, and a safety deposit box in New York, could be, as you say, for services you were going to render; but it could just as well be for services rendered.

Either Mulroney waited six years to declare as income the three cash payments he received in brown envelopes from Karlheinz Schreiber, or he accepted the payment as tribute from the “success money” Schreiber had handed out from commissions for the Airbus sale, or what the lobbyist mistakenly thought was support to come for Bear Head.

Throughout investigation of the Airbus kickback payments, Pat Martin has been raising some pertinent concerns about how business lobbies operate in Ottawa.

Though it has been largely forgotten, when Mulroney first became prime minister, his government created a chief of staff position for each minister, staffed by the Conservative party, and not the public service. Instead of a young executive and special assistants hired for political work, and paid modestly, under Mulroney, the public purse paid hefty salaries to partisan chiefs of staff, with status rivaling deputy ministers.

Companies such as Thyssen, or Airbus, anxious to lobby government for help with their costly projects, could go to a firm owned by Conservative insiders such as Government Consultants International (GCI), and GCI would arrange for meetings with a political contact: the chief of staff to the minister.

In the case of Airbus, these consultant fees for lobbying were apparently paid to the Mulroney confidants who ran GCI. Over the years, other firms sprung up to gain access to the political process through the door of partisan politics. The Liberal fund-raising club, the Laurier Club, granted party donors meetings with ministers, and if you gave enough money, the prime minister. Lobby firms suggested their clients join.

Lobby money went to the government consultants. Come elections the same consultants ran national campaigns for the parties, and helped out at the constituency level. Once the party won, some of the insiders went to work with ministers, others set up firms to collect commissions from firms looking for access to power.

In Europe the kickback from successful contractors became the method of choice for financing the expensive business of politics. The president of the French Socialist Party went to prison for his part in concocting such an arrangement.

A public inquiry, as promised by Stephen Harper, should turn up some interesting material. But its fate is in the hands of the electoral gods.

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...