Finish the work of Reform
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, January 19, 2008

The burdens of leadership fell heavily on the shoulders of Abraham Lincoln but lifestyle considerations were assuredly the least of them. Leaving Springfield, Illinois to become president of the United States, he informed his law partner and future biographer, William Herndon, that "If I live I'm coming back some time, and then we'll go right on practising law as if nothing had ever happened."

Contrast this with Brian Mulroney, whose Gucci excesses, dancing "with the lady that brung ya" and "jobs for the boys" helped launch a reform movement in western Canada and, arguably, are again raising eyebrows in Alberta where a poll recently found the Conservatives down 23 points. At some unconscious level, at least a few Albertans must be wondering why the prime minister isn't finishing the job the Reform party started those many years ago.

To be sure, changing the political culture of the land is no easy task, not least because challenges lurk more deeply than the legalities of cash deliveries in hotels and cafés would suggest. Even so, Stephen Harper's reaction to the Mulroney-Schreiber affair, the reverse side of the same coin that produced the Liberals' sponsorship scandal, is curiously bloodless given the pressing need, now, to drive a stake through the heart of an Old Canada political culture predicated on trading favours.

Make no mistake: a practical social obligation between private parties with private resources at the citizen level very rapidly becomes the source of all corruption at the public. Its causes vary. Party supporters failing to separate their personal desires from their roles as responsible citizens is one but, mostly it's because we live in a culture that deems you stupid if you don't take advantage.

The result is little in our institutional framework remains untainted: revolving doors between lobbyists and the government, Senate appointments acquired by wheedling members of political parties, candidate and delegate selection by "instant" special interest-group membership sales, or just plain stacking of Crown corporations and other agencies.

Where to start? The Johnston Report allows the prime minister valuable breathing room; otherwise, it is only marginally helpful. Tasks need effective tools and here a public inquiry, however narrowly defined, fails the test. It can't deal with the legal issues of the Mulroney-Schreiber affair and it certainly can't deal with the cultural.

Accordingly, former ambassador, deputy minister and Mulroney chief of staff Norman Spector has called for the creation of a special prosecutor's office and a deal with Karlheinz Schreiber that requires him to "spill the beans." I agree. Among the many tellers of tall tales in this sorry episode, only Karlheinz Schreiber has nothing to lose by telling the truth and everything to gain if he does -- so long as his extradition order to Germany is stayed.

Cultural issues around favour-trading and public appointments are partially addressed by conflict-of-interest guidelines and other rules and processes, though the AECL controversy demonstrates even their inadequacy for reconciling public accountability and expertly rendered, independent advice.

The heart of the matter, however, beats within political parties themselves where favour-trading is a fine art. This practice gave Frank Moores his seat on the Air Canada board but it also prompted Stéphane Dion to award candidacies in plum ridings to those who supported his leadership bid.

If cultures can't change overnight then small steps will have to do. A modest but possibly effective start could be the creation within political parties of permanent standing committees to review best practices in other democracies. British Conservatives, for instance, require potential candidates to be cleared by the party before they introduce themselves at the riding level; in the U.S., patronage appointments arrive and depart with the government of the day. This removes any fiction that such appointees are nonpartisan and establishes clear lines of accountability and expertise within the government. And, to address the scourge of "instant" memberships, isn't it time to weight votes according to years of membership in the party?

Stephen Harper is unlikely to face crises of Lincolnesque proportions, though Mulroney-Schreiber is difficult enough. An incisive, expeditious but full airing may prove cathartic but so be it. History will thank the man who slew the vampire that turned Canada into a banana republic and so restored institutional integrity to the land.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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