With the poll numbers for the federal Liberals plummeting to their lowest point in a decade, many leading figures within the party are having second and third thoughts about the wisdom of calling an election for May. What once looked like an easy walk to victory for Paul Martin is now looking much more uncertain.

Much of the public support that is deserting the Liberals appears to be headed to the new Regressive Conservative Party, led byâe¦ well, no one at the moment. The prospect of a Conservative government, or even a reinvigorated opposition party on the far right, emerging as a key consequence of the Liberals current and past ethical challenges is almost nauseating. For those with short-term memories, these were the guys that you vigorously kicked out to bring in the Liberals. And, before that, you crushed the Liberals in favour of the Conservatives.

The defining moment of the 1984 election campaign — the first one in which I was eligible to vote — occurred when Brian Mulroney confronted John Turner about the patronage orgy that occurred when Turner replaced Pierre Trudeau as Prime Minister. “You had a choice, sir. You could have said, ‘No, Iâe(TM)m not going to do it’.” In a more candid moment during the campaign, however, Mulroney betrayed his true feelings about political patronage and corruption. Mulroney told reporters, “Let’s face it, there’s no whore like an old whore. If I’d been in Bryce (Mackasey)’s position, I’d have been right in there with my nose in the public trough like the rest of them.” And, he was like the rest of them.

Mulroney remains a major backroom force in the Conservative Party. He reportedly played a key role in facilitating the merger of the PCs and the Alliance. Now, he’s working the phones on behalf of Belinda Stronach, convincing many of his old Quebec contacts that they really want a unilingual Anglophone with no political experience leading their party. But, the names of two of Mulroney’s former MPs — Gabriel Fontaine and Michel Côté — had to be removed from Stronach’s posted list of endorsements after past ethical breaches (including Fontaine’s fraud conviction) were “discovered” by her campaign.

Meanwhile, fellow leadership contender Tony Clement is finding that the ethics issue is more of a boomerang than a stone to be cast at the Liberals. He has been very aggressive in attacking the Liberals, referring to “wide-scale looting of the taxpayers’ coffers to benefit the friends of the Liberal party.” At the same time, he thinks it’s acceptable for Tom Long, his campaign co-chair, to have accepted $83,000 merely for asking his friend (and fellow Harris organizer) Deb Hutton whether she wanted a job at Hydro One. Long was one of several Ontario PC insiders to be handed untendered contracts with the government-owned utility for huge sums of money and little obvious real work. When questioned by the Toronto Sun about the apparent selectiveness of his high moral standards, Clement offered weakly that “I guess I could (ask Long about the contract). The issue is that they feel, I suppose, in their reaction, that things are justifiable, so, unless there’s something more that comes of it, I’m not sure what else I can gain from the conversation, but I’d be happy to have that conversation.”

Of course, Ontario isn’t the only province in which Conservative governments have got stuck in the ethical quicksand. In Saskatchewan, the aftermath of nine years of Conservative rule saw 14 Conservative MLAs — including the former Deputy Premier — and two caucus workers convicted of fraud and breach of trust. They were found to have illegally diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars from government allowances into their own pockets through bogus expense claims. Grant Devine, who was Premier in that government, says he knew nothing of the scam, and is trying to return to politics as a federal Conservative candidate. “They are going after Mr. Martin really hard on this sponsorship scandal,” Devine told the media after the party tried to block his nomination. “While they are doing that they don’t want to be associated with any other past governments of any kind, in particular the Progressive Conservative government of Grant Devine.” But, whether Devine ends up being a candidate or not, how much credibility do the Conservatives have in criticizing Paul Martin for “not knowing”?

Canadian voters have every right to be angry at the Liberals, and to base their votes at least partly upon that anger. But, while they are flocking to the polls to “throw the bums out,” it is also essential that they pay attention to who they are letting in. If they defeat the Liberals only to elect the Conservatives, the “People Who Love Irony” would be very pleased, but the country could be even worse off in terms of the ethical standards of its government.


Scott Piatkowski

Scott Piatkowski is a former columnist for rabble.ca. He wrote a weekly column for 13 years that appeared in the Waterloo Chronicle, the Woolwich Observer and ECHO Weekly. He has also written for Straight...