The Harper-Mulroney rift

Pair were friends, but PM has ordered Tories not to talk to former leader

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The Gazette, Friday, November 16, 2007

Stephen Harper understands, better than Brian Mulroney ever did, that a prime minister doesn't have friends, only responsibilities.

Mulroney was far too indulgent of his friends when he was in office. Some of them took advantage of him, introducing him to people like Karlheinz Schreiber, and he's paid a heavy price for it.

Harper, on the other hand, feels no obligations to his friends. He doesn't put them in the Senate, he doesn't name them to boards, he has short lists of qualified applicants for appointments, and he would never take a meeting with a lobbyist. He means it - no more politics as usual. He's built his brand on integrity and in the last week, he's staked his reputation on it.

Thus, when Schreiber's sworn affidavit was published in the Globe and Mail last Friday, Harper saw immediately that his allegations touched on the integrity of two prime minister's offices, Mulroney's and his own.

Schreiber is so unscrupulous, so desperate to remain in Canada, that he dragged Harper into his lawsuit against Mulroney, alleging the former PM was supposed to raise his case, and show Harper a letter, during a visit to Harrington Lake last summer. Harper quickly knocked that down, saying Mulroney never raised it during a social visit with his family.

Previously, Schreiber wrote Harper a letter last January, and when he received no reply, sent it again in March with a covering note alleging Harper was part of the vast conspiracy of silence against him. Welcome to the grassy knoll.

Much has been made by the opposition and the press gallery this week of Schreiber's loony letters to the prime minister, and whether Harper is part of a coverup. This is not to know very much of how the PM's office, or its correspondence unit, works. The prime minister isn't supposed to see letters from people in court, people with special pleadings, or people shouting at the rain. There are people whose jobs are to protect him from crackpots.

And the correspondence unit is tucked away in a far corner of the PM's office. It's not even in the Langevin Block, but in a back office called the Blackburn Building overlooking the Sparks St. mall.

In the four years I worked there as Mulroney's chief speechwriter from 1985-88, no one from correspondence ever sat in one meeting I was in. I can't even remember ever talking to anyone from correspondence - and all our events had paper trails as invitations to the prime minister.

On the substance of Schreiber's accusations against Mulroney, there are two that touch on his time in office. One, that they formally agreed to a business arrangement at a meeting at Harrington on June 23, 1993, two days before Mulroney left office. And two, that Mulroney associate Fred Doucet asked to transfer funds from an Ottawa consulting firm, Government Consultants International, "to Mr. Mulroney's lawyer in Geneva related to the Airbus deal."

Mulroney says he's never had a lawyer in Switzerland, then or later, and never had a Swiss bank account, then or ever. (How do you prove you have a Swiss bank account? Or as Jean Drapeau once said, how do you prove you don't have one?).

So when Harper called his news conference to announce he would be appointing a third-party expert to investigate, it was normal for reporters to wonder, as the CBC's Keith Boag did, if he had talked to Mulroney. Harper said he hadn't, and then quite unprompted went a lot further.

"I have not discussed this course of action with Mr. Mulroney," Harper said, "and I think it will be incumbent upon myself and also upon members of the government to have no dealings with Mr. Mulroney until this issue is resolved."

This puts Mulroney on a list of people Harper isn't talking to. It might even get Mulroney an honourary lifetime membership in the press gallery, or an invitation to speak at next year's gallery dinner. I digress.

Here, Harper went a bit further than he needed. It put a suggestion of persona non grata on Mulroney. There being no communication between them, when Mulroney in turn asked for a full inquiry this week, Harper got no heads up. I'll see your third party, and raise you a royal commission.

For Harper, there are management issues of party unity around this, which are much more serious than whether Marjory LeBreton, the government leader in the Senate, can talk to her close friend Mulroney. Harper is the head of the Conservative family, and he's essentially said the party's elder statesman, without whom the merger on the right would not have occurred, is unwelcome at the family table.

This has created serious rumblings in the old Tory tent this week, especially in Quebec, where Mulroney is held in high regard as the father of free trade and Meech Lake. Privately, Mulroney has been assuring friends all week he's not offended, that Harper was just doing his job.

Acutely aware party unity is a fragile thing, Mulroney wants no space between Harper and himself. But the reality is that things can never quite be the same between them again.

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