Obsession with trivia blunts Liberal efforts in the House

Party is too busy scandal-mongering to deal with substantive issues

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The Gazette, Monday, October 29, 2007

It was Bobby Kennedy who famously said, "Don't get mad, get even." The Liberal slogan in opposition is "don't get even, get mad."

It isn't just the pursuit of sensational headlines that has prompted the Liberals to scandal-mongering in question period over the "in and out" accounting practices of the 2006 Conservative ad buys, between local candidates and the national campaign.

The Liberals even purport to be shocked and appalled that some of these defeated Tory candidates got jobs with ministers' offices, saying they should be suspended until the allegations are cleared up. As Robert Bourassa once asked: "You expect us to do business with our enemies?"

Stephen Harper responded to these accusations by daring Stéphane Dion to take it outside, where he didn't enjoy parliamentary immunity. When Dion did, he was considerably more careful about what he said. Then the Conservatives sued the Liberal Party over a press release on the accounting story, in which Liberal MP Dominic Leblanc wondered if there was a connection between defeated Tory candidates' "willingness to participate and employment by this Conservative government." After the Tories sued, Leblanc said the Liberals hadn't meant to suggest anyone broke the law. Uh-huh.

Undeterred, the Liberals put out another release Friday morning, headlined "Conservatives ramp up election speculation as scandals grow," accusing the Tories of firing up election fever "to bury their growing list of scandals."

The short answer to this complex story is that all parties move money back and forth from local to national campaigns, as needs arise during elections. And provided they don't overspend the legal limits at either level, no laws are broken.

The question is why the Liberals are so fixated on this "in and out" accounting story. Maybe they think where there's smoke there's fire. Maybe they're looking for a quick fix. Maybe they're really onto something. "There must be something there," one Liberal frontbencher mused the other day.

More likely, they're mad as hell, and not going to take it any more. As a party of government, these guys don't do opposition very well. Their House leader, Ralph Goodale, has been angry ever since the income-trust fiasco two years ago. It happened on his watch as finance minister, and one black headline in mid-campaign, "RCMP criminal probe," might have been the tipping point that sealed the Liberals' fate in the 2006 election.

What did the markets know and when did they know it, and from whom did they know it? Not from Goodale or anyone on his staff, that's for sure. The entire story was deeply unfair to Goodale, a thoroughly decent and honourable man. Two years later, it's evident from his anger that's he still smarting from the smear to his reputation.

But the losses inflicted on the Liberals in government seem to be affecting their judgment, and their tactics, in opposition.

Their one opportunity to impress the country as a united and serious force, a government in waiting, is in question period every day.

Not only are they clearly divided over Dion's leadership, they're fixated on scandal-mongering to the virtual exclusion of serious questions of public policy. There were any number of serious issues the Liberals could have pursued in question period last week, but chose not to.

For example, now that the loonie is at par with the greenback, and even worth more, where is the purchasing-power parity between the Canadian and U.S. dollars? The Liberals allowed the Conservatives to frame the discussion when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty met with major retailers, and pointed out the different price points on Harry Potter books between Canada and the U.S.

Or, why was the governor of the Bank of Canada talking down our dollar in Washington last week? Does Flaherty agree with David Dodge that the dollar is overvalued on the fundamentals? You wouldn't get the finance minister to contradict the governor of the central bank, but it wouldn't hurt to get him on the record.

Or, what about U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's admission that the Maher Arar case wasn't very well handled by the U.S. government? It was left to a Conservative backbencher to raise that question in the House. Now, will the U.S. finally take Arar off their no-fly list?

Or what of the NATO ministerial meeting last week, and whether other countries might pitch in on Afghanistan?

The list goes on. The Liberals have their own list. It's all about misuse of public funds and patronage. And this, from the party renowned for what the Gomery Commission condemned as "a culture of entitlement."

Hey, whatever works.

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