Saturday, December 22, 2007

Mulroney inquiry is worth the price

This is from the Star. We don't have even the terms of reference yet or the costs so it is hard to see how we can know whether it is worth the price. I do think we should have an inquiry nevertheless and it is heartening to see at least one editorialist giving us reasons why we should still have an inquiry. I fear though that Johnson's terms of reference will be to dump the inquiry idea altogether.

Mulroney inquiry is worth the price

Dec 22, 2007 04:30 AM
Most Canadians feel they have heard enough about former prime minister Brian Mulroney's relationship with German Canadian lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber, and don't favour a costly public inquiry into the cash-stuffed envelopes affair. Although a recent poll found that only 21 per cent of Canadians believe what Mulroney told the Commons ethics committee, 52 per cent said they see little reason to conduct a thorough probe of events that happened nearly 15 years ago.

Many of those opposed to an official inquiry suggest taxpayers should be spared the cost of a public inquiry, which could well run into millions of dollars. They also think it is pointless to investigate dealings that took place so long ago and say Ottawa should be more focused on today's issues, such as global warming, the conflict in Afghanistan or the state of the economy.

So why hold the inquiry at all?

There are compelling reasons for such a probe, including the importance and value of the truth and integrity to our democratic institutions. Effective democracy demands that the public interest must always take precedence over the private or personal interests of those who enjoy the power and privilege of governing.

If there is any question of that principle being abused, as there was, for example, in the Liberal sponsorship scandal, the only way to restore the public's faith in our system of representative government is to cast a spotlight on the officials in question in order exonerate them or expose their wrongdoing. It is the ultimate form of accountability.

Although he initially opposed the idea of a probe into the Mulroney-Schreiber affair, Prime Minister Stephen Harper ultimately relented under public pressure and called for an official probe. The inquiry will start after University of Waterloo president David Johnston provides advice on the possible terms of reference for such a probe. Johnston is to give his report to Harper by Jan. 11.

While a government of one stripe may find it advantageous to establish an inquiry into the actions of a former government of a different stripe, Harper is addressing a controversy involving his own party, just as former prime minister Paul Martin did when he threw open the windows on the sponsorship scandal. That cost Martin the next election, but no one could accuse him of trying to hide the truth. And that was how public confidence in the system was strengthened.

To claim, as some do, that the Schreiber-Mulroney affair is ancient history, and therefore not worth the expense of an inquiry, is to imply that there is some kind of magic dividing point on the time line of history, before which the truth does not matter.

Canadians are entitled to know whether a former prime minister broke faith with the people who put their trust in him, even if it was nearly 15 years ago. And given the circumstances of his dealing with Schreiber – envelopes stuffed with $1,000 bills exchanged in hotel rooms and then squirrelled away in safety deposit boxes and safes with no taxes paid for several years – Mulroney should have the right to explain himself before a full-blown inquiry.

And yes the inquiry will cost money. But keeping our democracy healthy is not something that can be had for free.

Canadians accept all kinds of costly safeguards to ensure the system works as effectively as it can. The auditor general, for example, provides an effective check on how our tax dollars are spent. The ethics commissioner is the first line of defence against abuse of the public trust. And public inquiries are needed at times to consider whether or not politicians and bureaucrats have abused their power.

Mulroney's dealings with Schreiber demand such a review.

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