Grewal Scandal Outsleazes Gomery

THE PAUL MARTIN TEAM spent a year and a half and $60 million of taxpayer money trying to prove that the squalid epoch when political favours could be traded for Liberal party advantage was over. Then Tim Murphy sat down for tea with Gurmant Grewal.

Just as Justice John Gomery's COMMISSION OF INQUIRY INTO THE FEDERAL SPONSORSHIP PROGRAM was winding down its public hearings in Montreal, brand new accusations of vote-fixing and seamy ethics were being levelled against Liberals in Ottawa. Gurmant Grewal, a B.C. Conservative MP, released long extracts from tape-recorded conversations on which Murphy, Prime Minister Paul Martin's chief of staff, and Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh seem to hint with no great delicacy that choice appointments awaited Grewal and his wife, Nina, another Conservative MP, if they abstained or switched sides in the vote on the Liberals' budget.

The obstacle in the way of frank discussion for the three men are Criminal Code interdictions against offering rewards in exchange for co-operation from government officials.

The hurdle clearly preoccupied Dosanjh and Murphy, because they spend a lot of time on the tapes explaining that they can't be seen to be extending an offer. This turns out to take much longer than if they had simply said, "We are not extending an offer."

At one point, for instance, Dosanjh pipes up with: "You have to be able to say that I did not make a deal. That's very important. That's why these kinds of deals are not made in that fashion." The two Liberals discuss the panoply of rewards they cannot be seen to have offered Grewal and his wife: cabinet appointments, Senate seats, diplomatic posts. If this isn't clear enough, Dosanjh reminds Grewal that "if the chief of staff says that certain conduct ought to be rewarded in due time, that trust is kept 99.9 per cent of the time."

Which conduct? Apparently, the conduct that is covered under the kind of deal that is not made in the fashion they had to be able to say they did not make this one.

So much for putting ethical storms behind the government and getting on with the business of the nation. Further proof that for this star-crossed Prime Minister, trouble follows trouble. And this time Martin couldn't use the techniques his government had rolled out so swiftly in February 2004, on the heels of auditor general Sheila Fraser's damning audit into the rampant mismanagement of festival and trade-show sponsorship during the Jean Chrétien years.

Back then, Martin promptly cashiered Liberals who had become mired in accusations of wrongdoing: VIA Rail chairman Jean Pelletier, the Crown rail company's president, Marc LeFrançois, and ambassador to Denmark Alfonso Gagliano. Martin helpers expressed their pride in a boss who would not indulge the mean arts of stonewalling or minimizing wrongdoing.

"Isn't this the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that you're an agent of change?" David Herle, one of Martin's most trusted advisers, asked an interviewer five days after Fraser's audit was released. "Isn't this the perfect kind of issue on which to say, 'Here is something that happened in a previous government - under a different administration - and as soon as it's come out, here's the actions I've taken.' To me that is an agent of change."

This time the clouds of allegation floated over Martin's friends, not somebody else's. Suddenly stonewalling looked like a pretty good option. Hammered in Question Period, not only by Tories but by the NDP and Bloc Québécois, Martin kept repeating his men had made no offer to Grewal.

Not for the first time, the only bright spot for Martin in the whole business was the behaviour of his adversaries. It is hard to imagine how the Conservative party could have more completely botched the rollout of the tapes. Grewal and the Conservative communications office hung onto them for 13 days after Grewal first proclaimed their existence, keeping them not only from reporters' ears but from the RCMP. The Conservatives' explanation for the delay was that the tapes suffered from unspecified technical issues and that many of the conversations, involving Grewal, Dosanjh and a mutual friend, took place in Punjabi. None of this explained why the Conservatives would withhold purported evidence of wrongdoing from the police for so long.

Almost inevitably, the Liberals argued that the reason for the delay was to edit out passages that would embarrass the Conservatives and to insert passages that could hurt the Liberals. Technicians popped up here and there to say the tapes contained the telltale clicks of amateurish tape splicing.

Precisely so, one might argue: there is no way an amateur splicer could have constructed the aria of innuendo the tapes put into the mouths of Murphy and Dosanjh. The tapes must reflect, for the very great majority of their running time, a faithful record of a concerted Liberal effort to sway Grewal's allegiance. But the delay in releasing the tapes - and the nagging question of just how noble Grewal's motives were in negotiating his party allegiance for most of a week - guaranteed the Conservatives would bear their share of public suspicion.

For any Canadian voter trying to choose a prospective government, it comes down to a dispiriting choice between possible bribery and possible fraud. No wonder the NDP was the only national party to have gained voters' trust since last year, in an Environics poll for the CBC. And no wonder respect for all politicians has taken a beating, with 65 per cent saying they had little or no trust in the nation's political leaders.

Again, that's not the way it was supposed to work out when Martin tasked Justice Gomery to get to the bottom of the sponsorship business. As a mechanism for clearing the air, the Gomery public hearings have proved inconclusive. There was one moment when it seemed the earth had opened under the Liberals' feet and would simply swallow the Martin government altogether. That was the day in April when Gomery lifted a brief publication ban on testimony from the colourful Liberal bagman Jean Brault. Envelopes full of cash changing hands in Italian restaurants, kickbacks, shady characters - it confirmed many Canadians' worst fears about what had been going on under the name of promoting national unity.

The resulting political crisis settled Stephen Harper's determination to bring the Martin government down if he could, and it led directly to Martin's dramatic televised plea for time to let Gomery complete his hearings and deliver a report, expected in December. Amazingly, Martin's gambit worked: with the help of independent ex-Conservative Chuck Cadman and newly Liberal ex-Conservative Belinda Stronach, the Liberals and NDP managed to defeat the combined votes of the Bloc and Conservative caucuses to survive a budget vote. Ottawa is not a clement city for political predictions these days, but it seems safe to say Martin has won his extension, at least until autumn.

Meanwhile, though, back at the Gomery hearings, something surprising was happening: not much. The Brault testimony was followed by a succession of colourful characters, including adman Paul Coffin with his elaborate system of duplicated or invented paperwork (last week, he pleaded guilty to 15 counts of fraud); and graphic designer Jacques Corriveau, whom others named as the most reliable source for large amounts of cash but who affected a selective memory that failed him whenever recollection might prove embarrassing.

It was lurid stuff, day after day, but it seems to have had no durable effect on Liberal or Conservative fortunes. Probably the Gomery inquiry's last opportunity, short of a written report from Gomery himself, to shake public opinion came when the commission's own auditors from Kroll Lindquist Avey revealed the results of their inquiry into the Adscam money trail. The advance billing was apocalyptic. The Sun newspaper chain said the Kroll audit was "expected to shake the foundations" of Gomery's inquiry and "expected to make more waves than any other testimony before Gomery."

But much like the current generation of political leaders, the Kroll audit failed to meet expectations. The auditors found that while the feds spent $332 million on sponsorship-related activities over a decade, the recipient firms donated only $768,536 to the Liberal party in above-board donations, and only $1.76 million in secret under-the-table cash--if Brault's testimony, which the auditors could not verify, was true. Gomery said he had no way of knowing whether the money Brault spent had actually made it into Liberal coffers. As smoking guns go, the Kroll audit lacked some pop.

The upshot of all this has been a relative stability in the polls that must frustrate just about every party except, arguably, the Bloc. A Decima Research poll at the end of May had the Liberals with a 36 per cent to 27 per cent lead over the Conservatives - enough to deny the Liberals a majority and the Conservatives any sure shot at replacing them as Canada's next government. The NDP may rise in public esteem but shows no sustained bounce in voting intentions.

Sheila Fraser's audit knocked the Martin Liberals from majority territory into minority territory. Nothing since then has substantially changed that state of affairs. Paul Martin has become a figure of constant frustration, not only for Liberals who thought he might eventually amount to something, but for political opponents who had lately dared hope he might be easy to eliminate. Almost before he had truly begun to govern, the Fraser audit banished Martin into a political purgatory. His opponents, and much of Canada's political culture, remain trapped there with him. There is no exit in sight.

BY THE NUMBERS

After this recent period of intense activity in Ottawa, what do Canadians think of the country's political situation? The results of the latest Maclean's/Roger's Media poll:

Are you relieved or disappointed that there will not be a spring election?

Relieved 58%

Disappointed 20%

Don't know/refused 23%

Do you think the opposition parties should again attempt to bring down the government, or wait to see what comes out of the Gomery inquiry?

Wait 75%

Attempt another vote 12%

Don't know/refused 14%

Do you believe Prime Minister Paul Martin will keep his promise to call an election after the Gomery inquiry is completed?

Yes 55%

No 29%

Don't know/refused 16%

Which of the following politicians has the most work ahead of them to improve their public image?

Paul Martin 33%

Stephen Harper 28%

Belinda Stronach 14%

Jack Layton 4%

Peter MacKay 2%

Don't know/refused/other 20%

How has Belinda Stronach's decision to cross over to the Liberals affected her chances of ever becoming prime minister?

Helped 18%

Hurt 33%

No impact 33%

Don't now/refused 16%

SOURCE: POLLARA INC.; SAMPLE SIZE 1,259; MARGIN OF ERROR ±2.8%

Maclean's June 13, 2005