A despicable smear campaign

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The Gazette, Wednesday, November 21, 2007

One of the oldest tactical rules of the political game is, when you're in trouble, create a diversion. No doubt about it, it's working for the Liberals.

Since the storm of the Mulroney-Schreiber affair broke in the Commons two weeks ago, the huge coverage of this story has swamped everything else.

The crisis in the Liberal Party over Stéphane Dion's leadership has suddenly abated. And the Harper government has been completely knocked off its agenda.

But there's a price to be paid for this in the civility of public discourse and the rational debate of public policy. Neither is to be found at present in the House of Commons, which has become a toxic-waste site.

You have to go back 20 years, to the heyday of the Liberal Rat Pack, to find such a poisonous atmosphere. You have to go back 40 years, to the mudslinging between Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker over Gerda Munsinger and Lucien Rivard, to sink into the kind of slime the House now finds itself.

It's open season on people's reputations, all under the protection of parliamentary immunity. It's disgusting.

Nor are the Liberals the only offenders. Consider this question in the House last Thursday from Tom Mulcair, the new NDP MP from Outremont, who went to Ottawa to do things differently: "Mr. Speaker, sustainable development is about taking care of future generations. Sustainable corruption is producing the same effect: Marc Lalonde, Liberal minister; Elmer MacKay, Conservative minister; Allan MacEachen, Liberal minster; Brian Mulroney, Conservative prime minister. There were decades of shady dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber, the summum of which was a $2.1 million payment to Mulroney for hurting his feelings. Will the prime minister take a first concrete step and inform Canadians that we will at least get our $2.1 million back?"

The book on Mulcair, when he was in opposition in Quebec City, was that he was the Liberals' most vicious attack dog. Now he's performing the same role for Jack Layton. He's conducting a drive-by smear campaign against anyone who was ever seen with Schreiber. As a lawyer, he ought to know better. As a politician, he has drawn a very limited future for himself. Nobody likes a pit bull in politics, you can look that up under Erik Neilsen in one generation, or John Nunziata in the next.

Never mind Mulroney. Leave him out of it. Consider the smear to the reputations of Marc Lalonde and Allan MacEachen, two of the most effective and longest serving Liberal ministers in the second half of the last century. Lalonde was a prime minister's principal secretary, later health minister, justice minister, energy minister and finance minister. MacEachen served two prime ministers, Pearson and Trudeau, in portfolios from finance to foreign affairs.

What have Lalonde and MacEachen ever done in their entire lives except serve our country with great distinction? Well, nothing, except it seems their services were legally retained by Schreiber, for which they performed legal services. That their names should be smeared in the House in which they served so honourably, reflects not on their service, but on Mulcair's cavalier disregard for the simple rules of decency.

It's deeply despicable, but it's typical of recent question periods. It's not just open season on Mulroney, but on Peter MacKay for having worked for Schreiber as a summer student 20 years ago, on Paul Terrien for having escorted Schreiber to a meeting with Mulroney nearly 10 years ago. This apparently is enough to place MacKay in a conflict of interest, and to lead to suggestions that Terrien should step down as chief of staff to Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon. This kind of suggestion would never be made in a serious country.

As for the $2.1 million for Mulroney's "hurt feelings," that was the government's settlement of costs, ordered by an arbitrator, for having invented a case that collapsed on the courthouse steps. Mulroney never saw a nickel of it; it all went to lawyers and PR guys.

How will we "at least get back our $2.1 million." From whom? From the law firms and public relations firms that represented Mulroney? This is the phoniest issue you've ever seen.

Yet the NDP's Pat Martin says: "Canadians want their $2.1 million back."

The NDP and the Bloc Québécois were at the ethics committee yesterday, moving motions to compel appearances by Mulroney and Schreiber before the committee. Interestingly, it was the Liberals who talked out the motion and ran out the clock. The Liberals don't want Mulroney putting on a show on the Hill.

They have another agenda, painting a scarlet letter on Stephen Harper for not reading crackpot letters from Schreiber that should never have reached his desk, letters both the Liberals and NDP had months ago and did nothing about.

"This isn't about what happened 20 years ago, nobody cares about that," admits one senior Liberal. "It's about nailing Harper."

Just so that everyone knows the real game afoot here. In the process, the village could burn to the ground.

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