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Guest Column

Letting the big fish swim away

by Jim Duff, Editor, The Suburban
Friday, May 13, 2005

It was a master stroke, declaring the May 19 budget vote a confidence issue. The Bloc and the Tories have blinkered themselves to anything but forcing an election, so when the budget falls, the Martinites can spend the next 36 days whining about how the opposition prevented Canadians from getting universal daycare, money for their cities and all the other goodies promised in this spring's Liberal spending spree.

There's another reason why Paul Martin and the Federal Liberal Agency of Canada (FLAQ) are ready to fight an election now, and on something other than allegations from Judge John Gomery's probe of the advertising sponsorship program.

This past week, we saw the commission edging closer to both the current Prime Minister's office and the Liberal party's Upper Canadian nerve centre. The media have done a superb steno's job of detailing the petty squabbles of Quebec's Liberal minnows, but until this past week, the carefully choreographed parade of witnesses and their pre-approved scripts stayed well away from the gang of good ol' boys hanging out in the PMO clubhouse since 1993.

That's why we can bet Judge Gomery will shut his commission down while the campaign is on. At this point, we're hearing from a chronological succession of Liberal Party of Canada Quebec wing (PLCQ) directors-general and those they've named who express a desire to challenge their testimony. We understand the commission's counsel feels it has no mandate to go past November, 2003.

Why would that be? This week's testimony that political aides to several federal and provincial ministers were among those who took and distributed cash to Liberal campaign workers make it clear that this wasn't the work of a few rogue fundraisers, but a well-organized cash-based system that had ‹ and still has ‹ roots in the PMO.

Gomery watchers have grown accustomed to hyperbolic descriptions of the various testimonies, but as someone who spent the past year interviewing Alfonso Gagliano, Beryl Wajsman and others for a book, I can honestly say nothing surprised me until this past week, when former PLCQ director-general Benôit Corbeil told the commission that whenever the perennially cash-strapped Quebec wing needed money, a call would be made to John Rae, executive assistant to the office of Power Corp. chairman Paul Desmarais. According to Corbeil, Rae would then call Banque Nationale president André Bérard to ask that the party's line of credit be increased. In three years, PLCQ's debt soared from $30,000 to more than $3 million.

Why would a senior advisor to the chairman of a publicly traded corporation, a trusted confidant of both Jean Chrétien and the current PM, make a call to a bank president on behalf of the Liberals' Quebec wing? Which hat was Mr. Rae wearing when he allegedly made those calls? One has difficulty believing this service was in exchange for access and influence, given that the LPCQ's president at the time was Françoise Patry, whose day job was ‹ and is ‹ serving as administrative assistant to Power Corp. chairman Paul Desmarais and his wife Jacqueline.

Was Mr. Rae acting on behalf of Power Corp. in guaranteeing the Quebec wing's line of credit? That would beg the question of why one of Canada's largest financial-services conglomerates was acting as a guarantor for a political party. If so, did Power Corp. make a declaration of this liability to shareholders or list it for tax purposes as a donation in kind?

Former Chrétien PMO Chief of Staff Jean Pelletier probably knows the answers to these and many other questions to have emerged during the Montreal hearings, but we've already heard from Mr. Pelletier, as we have from Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Martin during the Ottawa phase. Because the commission's lawyers didn't know then what we all know now, the big fish never got asked the hard questions ‹ and they won't be coming back for re-cross anytime soon. Ever ask yourself who decided the order of appearance?

What was FLAQ's role? What influence did some of Canada's richest, most powerful business interests enjoy in the Chrétien PMO? What influence do they exert on the current PMO?

A June 27 election will shut down the Gomery probe at precisely the point when it threatens to delve into the culture of favour which has characterized the past decade of Liberal rule.

That's why Canadians should have no illusions that the big fish will be spotlighted, let alone netted. The Gomery probe is as carefully scripted as a West Wing episode; there will be no embarrassment for the Martin PMO or its many rich and powerful friends, no further criminal charges and plea bargains all around.

And as Stephen Harper will be led to realize his first day in office, some things never change in Canada, and who wields the real power is one of them. That's why they call it the Nepean lobotomy.

Jim Duff is editor-in-chief of The Suburban Newspapers, Quebec's largest English-language weekly chain.