It’s Christmas time in the city. And in this city — Ottawa — the move is from political strategizing and cross-checking to goodwill and trying to understand the reason for the season.
So, in wishing OttawaWatch readers the best at Christmas, I would like, in the best tradition of Charles Dickens, to talk about politics past, present and future.
Politics past made for interesting watching last week. That was when former prime minister Brian Mulroney appeared before the House of Commons ethics committee to tell his side of the story about the money that Karlheinz Schreiber paid him around the time he stepped down from the top job.
I want to focus on Mulroney’s explanation of why he took the first package of 75 one thousand dollar bills, where he stored the money, and how he apparently spent it before deciding, belatedly that he needed to file an income tax return.
In the committee room, as well as in the news reports on Mulroney’s performance, the believability quotient bounced around like a Mexican jelly bean.
In the words of several journalists who would sooner not give Mulroney the benefit of the doubt, was his presentation style — equal parts rhetorical flourish and congenial blarney.
Being part Irish myself, but an adherent to the new accountability-prone style of politics, I want to be relatively less cynical toward the Mulroney appearance.
It is because I want to believe that his apparent sophistication in matters related to political strategy is sometimes spoiled — for better or worse — by an unseemly blending of idealism and pragmatism.
Let’s trace that through his testimony.
Mulroney started by suggesting that he was looking forward to doing something meaningful, and that he received some hint from Schreiber that, once he was safely out of office, that something might manifest itself.
One of his big mistakes, he said, was in taking a cash-filled envelope after he ceased to be prime minister but while he was still a back bench MP.
That was in the same meeting as Schreiber apparently persuaded him to become an informal global ambassador, encouraging various world leaders to acquire small arms for “peacekeeping” purposes. The unspoken suggestion was, of course, that those arms and vehicles would be manufactured at a yet-to-be-approved plant located in Canada.
By Mulroney’s apparent reasoning, it was the ideal task to engage the skills of an entrepreneurial former prime minister. He could develop a legacy internationally, avoid the potential conflict of lobbying Canada’s domestic leadership — whether Liberal or Conservative — and have access to cash that would enable him and, presumably, some of his family members, to do some serious world travel.
But “peacekeeping”, arguably, was the legacy word that attracted his attention. After all, a former prime minister, Lester Pearson, had won the Nobel peace prize for giving Canada the peacekeeping role that so long earmarked our defence policy.
Now, under this scenario, Mulroney likely recognized that his communication skill sets were much different from Pearson’s but his motivations, he might have had reason to believe, were similar.
So off he went, travelling the globe in his personal pilgrimage for peace, drawing as necessary on his stash to keep from dipping into his prime ministerial pension and whatever else he had to live on.
Until, one day, a few years later, Schreiber was charged by the German authorities with bribery, fraud and a range of other alleged offences. It was on that day, that he determined that, to protect his future reputation, he had better pay income tax on the Schreiber payments. And pay he did, he told the committee, not just on what remained after paying for the legacy trips, but on the whole $225,000.
An unlikely story?
Maybe. But a lot of Canadians would like to believe it, at least to the point of telling pollsters they think the idea of a public inquiry into the Mulroney-Schreiber matters should die a natural death.
At Christmas, the time of peace and goodwill, they might be right.
But it would be well to remember, at the same time, that we are, indeed, in a new accountability era. That happened because the present government saw the need for change.
If the Accountability Act really works, it might be possible for politicians, in the future, to protect their legacies against unseemly blending of idealism and pragmatism from falling victim to untimely bags of cash.
And that would be a pretty good Christmas present — one that would keep on giving.
Meanwhile, Edna and I wish all our OttawaWatch readers a good Christmas, filled with a sense that the Jesus of the manger is also the Christ of new beginnings.
Lloyd Mackey is a member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa and author of Stephen Harper: The Case for Collaborative Governance (ECW Press, 2006).