Not enough has changed in Ottawa

Don’t accept responsibility for
anything find someone to blame

James Travers
The Toronto Star


No matter what he says, Martin Brian Mulroney, Canada's 18th prime minister, can't change two realities. One is that the careful reconstruction of his reputation is in ruins, knocked flat by the wrecking ball of Karlheinz Schreiber's cash-stuffed envelopes. The other is that his government and its Liberal successor both failed the critical sniff test.

Those facts of almost current federal political life offer starkly contrasting insights into how this capital has and has not changed. Mercifully, electoral reform is dragging into the past the grasping Ottawa Mulroney came here to explain today, the Ottawa of party bagmen and greasy contracts. Less happily, the accountability that decades ago should have made an open book of Air Canada's $1.8 billion Airbus purchase is as elusive and illusory as ever.

It's not just that the Conservative campaign commitment to shine daylight into dark corners is less than promised. It's also that liability is fluid, flowing from ministers to mandarins as the situation and politics demand.

Stephen Harper's decision to resume Chalk River medical isotope production is one of two current examples. In effectively taking the advice of operators over the regulator, the Prime Minister is weighing the small possibility of catastrophe against the larger interest of patients even as he gambles with public confidence in vital safeguards. What's troubling is politicians neutering a nuclear watchdog. What's marginally more reassuring is that there's no ambiguity: Harper is clearly accountable for a problematic policy option with potentially devastating political consequences.

As the buck-passing after the Vancouver airport Taser horror demonstrates, that's not standard Ottawa operating procedure. Turning the principle of ministerial accountability on its head, this government is keeping Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day out of the spotlight while pushing into it Alain Jolicoeur, a theoretically nameless, faceless civil servant.

That's been an accelerating trend since the Mulroney years when a bureaucrat was publicly tarred for the 1991 comedy of errors that saw Mohammed al-Mashat, a Saddam Hussein apologist, leap the immigration queue. More than convenient for ministers, the practice of footloose blame adds to the mystery of where, if anywhere, the buck stops here. And that, of course, is not coincidental.

In resisting meaningful lobbying reform, Conservatives are continuing the ruling party tradition of clouding transparency by thwarting, among other things, access-to-information laws. Add those obstructions to parliamentary committees that have lost the capacity and perhaps the will to protect the public purse and the ground is nicely prepped for scandal.

Mulroney administrations staggered from one embarrassment to another, contributing significantly to high public distrust and the prime minister's record low popularity. Jean Chrétien dipsy-doodled around his share, finally leaving behind the sponsorship mess that tripped Paul Martin. Years later, questions remain unanswered about tens of millions of dollars in Airbus commissions and the political direction of a scheme that benefited the Liberal party and its closest Quebec friends.

No question, the Ottawa Mulroney returns to is in important ways a better place than it was when be got out of town just ahead of wrathful voters. But it's not consistently accountable and remains as opaque – and with the same proximity to evil odours – as a bathroom window.