The new Rat Pack

Debate on the Hill has taken a decidedly nasty turn

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The Gazette, Friday, November 23, 2007

The first time I came to the House of Commons was with my senior high-school class from Loyola in the spring of 1965. As we were standing in line outside the Visitors' Gallery, a young parliamentary correspondent named Robert Lewis, a graduate of our school, stopped by for a word with a couple of his former teachers. Bob was then working in the Ottawa bureau of the Montreal Star, and as he took his seat in the Press Gallery below us, I thought, that's what I want to do.

The House in those days was dominated by two towering figures, Lester B. Pearson and John Diefenbaker. Seeing these two giants in action, a decade before the House was televised, was as thrilling to me as attending a Canadiens game at the Forum. It was the season of the Lucien Rivard scandal, soon to be followed by the Gerda Munsinger affair, and the worst imaginable things were said on both sides of the House, with reckless disregard for reputations.

Twenty years ago, I sat in a privileged seat in the Prime Minister's Gallery, as Brian Mulroney delivered a landmark speech on why he supported the abolition of capital punishment. Of all the speeches we worked on together, it was the one I was proudest of, and I was most grateful for the help we received from a leading member of the Ontario bar, Eddie Greenspan, who in one of life's small coincidences now represents Karlheinz Schreiber.

It was a high moment of public policy, and a welcome respite from the daily antics of the Rat Pack, whose smear tactics demeaned the House and all who served in it as nothing since the Dief-Pearson dramas of the 1960s.

The Rat Pack is largely forgotten today, but at the time they were fearsome practitioners of the politics of personal destruction - so proud were they of their casual slanders and slurs that they were photographed together in Rat Pack T-shirts. One of them, Brian Tobin, would later disavow in his memoirs these shameful proceedings, and he became one of the ablest parliamentarians of his generation. Sheila Copps would become an important cabinet minister, but in those days she was way out of control. The others, John Nunziata and Don Boudria, are deservedly forgotten answers to a trivia question.

Now, in the Mulroney-Schreiber affair, there is a new Liberal Rat Pack, and a smaller NDP crowd, who cravenly hide behind their parliamentary immunity in their cowardly assaults upon the reputations of anyone who was ever seen with Schreiber. It is the most shocking episode of guilt by association I've ever seen. Never has there been such an open season on people's reputations.

The new Liberal Rat Pack are named Mark Holland, Robert Thibault, Pablo Rodriguez, Marlene Jennings and Ruby Dhalla. The smaller NDP attack unit is led by Pat Martin, the most offensively sanctimonious MP in the entire House, who has been joined in his daily smear campaigns by Tom Mulcair, a lawyer and former law teacher, who last week shamefully slandered the reputations of Marc Lalonde and Allan MacEachen, two of the most thoroughly honourable men ever to serve in the House. Ed Broadbent would have driven a stake through Mulcair's heart. Jack Layton sat by and said nothing. Some honourable members: shame, shame.

Everything MPs say in the House and in committee is said under parliamentary immunity. Some of those statements wouldn't stand the light of day in polite society, let alone a court of law.

It's when they go on television that they get in trouble. Mulroney is suing Thibault for a statement he made on the Mike Duffy show. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson is threatening to sue Dhalla over a statement she made in an interview with Don Newman, that Nicholson turned off an internal investigation on whether Ottawa could recover the $2.1 million paid to Mulroney's lawyers and PR team in the first Airbus lawsuit.

Thibault is just a party hack. But Holland and Dhalla are bright and attractive young MPs who might have an exceptional future. But not the way they are going, trafficking in sleaze. There's no future in that.

Meanwhile, at the ethics committee yesterday, MPs sat under a portrait of the fathers of Confederation, and debated a motion to summon Schreiber and Mulroney to appear before them.

Pat Martin, having apologized for an idiotic outburst earlier in the week, immediately resumed his ways as a ruthless guttersnipe.

He said Canadians wanted to get to "the root of the Schreiber kickback scandal." What kickbacks? To whom? He referred to a lobbyist "lining his pockets" and "peddling his influence," though he did not have the courage to name anyone. "All of us in this room," he said, "have been tainted" by the image of "bagfuls of cash in secret hotel rooms." That would be Mulroney, of course, in the dumbest thing he ever did in his life.

Martin wasn't done. "Villainy wears many masks," he said, "none so treacherous as the mask of virtue."

There's never a mirror around when you need one.

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