Johnston has a tough decision to make on public inquiry

Harper made a snap decision for a probe into Airbus, and he's stuck with it

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The Gazette, Monday, December 17, 2007

If David Johnston has been watching the House ethics committee hearings with Karlheinz Schreiber and Brian Mulroney, he might have seen enough to determine whether he should recommend a full public inquiry.

This is the role the former McGill University principal took on when he accepted Stephen Harper's request to examine the Mulroney-Schreiber affair, and whether an inquiry, or some form of follow up, was warranted.

There are only two matters to be weighed: the public interest on the one hand, and a private transaction on the other.

Quite apart from the question of whether Canadians want a public inquiry, which would take a year and cost about $50 million, there's a question of whether there's any need for one.

The ethics committee hearings might have told Johnston all he needs to know about whether or how to proceed further.

This entire matter was precipitated by Schreiber's Nov. 7 affidavit alleging, among other things, that one of Mulroney's associates asked him to have money from Airbus transferred to "his lawyer in Geneva." In his statement to the committee last Thursday, Mulroney said he never received a penny from Airbus, never had a lawyer in Geneva, and never had a bank account in Switzerland. As for the Airbus procurement, even Schreiber has testified Mulroney had nothing to do with it. When Air Canada chose the A-320 over Boeing 727 retrofits in 1988, it never consulted the government, only informed it.

Schreiber's affidavit, which Mulroney called his "get-out-of- jail card," also alleged they reached an agreement to retain his services in a meeting at Harrington Lake, two days before he left office in 1993. Mulroney maintains they agreed only to stay in touch.

And finally, Schreiber claims Mulroney promised to show Harper a letter that Schreiber wrote to him on July 20, 2006, and discuss his extradition case with the prime minister during a visit by the Mulroney family to Harrington Lake later that summer.

This was the tripwire that forced Harper over the edge at his news conference the next day, when he announced the third- party process and said he and his government would have no further contact with Mulroney until the matter was resolved.

Harper's concern for the integrity of his office, and of his own brand, is high-minded and understandable. But as events have subsequently demonstrated, he might have pushed the panic button, when a weekend of reflection, or a simple reference of the accusations to the RCMP, would have been a wiser course.

Harper's Friday-at-4 news conference unleashed the feeding frenzy of the last month, and became a licence for libel and drive-by-smears, all under the cover of parliamentary immunity.

But both Harper and Mulroney have convincingly denied that the former prime minister showed his successor Schreiber's letter, or discussed it with him, during a visit by the Mulroneys for a family barbecue and swim.

It's hard to imagine that they would have. First, Mulroney says he hasn't spoken to Schreiber in seven years. Second, he never acknowledged receipt of the letter. And third, no one has ever accused Mulroney of being socially inappropriate or inept. It's hard to imagine anything more inappropriate, in a setting where the Harpers had invited the Mulroneys and of which their kids had so many happy memories of growing up.

Then how did Schreiber find out about it? Elmer MacKay might have told him. MacKay had asked Mulroney, the next time he spoke to Harper, to see how his son Peter was doing as foreign affairs minister. After the Harrington visit, in mid-August last year, Mulroney assured MacKay his son was in the PM's good graces. And that's probably how it got back to Schreiber.

This is what undoubtedly annoyed and spooked Harper, that a generous private gesture had somehow become part of an accusatory affidavit reflecting on the integrity of his office.

If the allegations relating to the public interest are satisfactorily disposed of, then there remains only the matter of a private transaction. Mulroney can't be any more embarrassed by it, has acknowledged his error in judgment in accepting a cash arrangement, and has apologized for it

Johnston will have to be the judge of whether it ends there.

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