Even Ralph Goodale Can’t Escape the Mud
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, February 21, 2004

Finance Minister Ralph Goodale spoke convincingly of the new Liberal government’s intentions for western Canada. “First, the government needs to acknowledge the reality of western alienation and treat it not with denial but with the seriousness it deserves,” he said in his dinner speech to the Canada West Foundation last October. “Disaffection in the West is no less important than any other challenge to Canadian unity and cohesion elsewhere.”

Paul Martin’s senior western lieutenant went on to suggest that some of the Canada West Foundation’s prescriptions for improving federal / provincial relations and increasing western clout in Ottawa were “pretty much a slam dunk”.

Like the man himself, it was a worthy try but it seems the Liberals have “fouled out” thanks to the sponsorship scandal. In western Canada Liberal support is in freefall - precipitously in British Columbia where it’s dropped from 42% to 27% but also in Saskatchewan where it’s dropped from 46% to 29%. These numbers may not spell the end of Goodale’s career but they cannot cheer a man who for so long kept a lonely Liberal flag flying in the West.

The popular and enduring Ralph Goodale was raised on the family farm near Wilcox, Saskatchewan. He’s been in politics since the age of 24 - as a member of Parliament, as leader of the Saskatchewan Liberals, and as member of the provincial assembly. Since 1993, he’s been MP for the urban Regina riding of Wascana. Holding a variety of portfolios in Cabinet, he’s become something of a latter day Herb Gray - always the good Liberal soldier, deflecting, deflating, always ready to serve.

So when, nearly two years ago, the former prime minister Jean Chretien bumped him from Government House Leader to Public Works with instructions to “Get in there, find out what’s wrong and fix it”, Ralph Goodale took the job to heart.

Dated ‘Summer, 2003’, his website newsletter chronicles the unhappy details of the ‘tough tasks’ he was performing. “Serious questions were coming thick and fast from the public and the media, in Parliament and its Committees through the Auditor General and the Access to Information Process,” the website says. “They centred on government contracting practices, weak program administration, an apparent lack of competition, transparency and accountability, and poor value for taxpayers’ dollars.”

Pledging a host of remedies, Goodale further reported that he was “working with senior government officials, internal auditors, the Treasury Board of Canada, the Auditor-General, external forensic investigators, the police and others – to identify and expose what went wrong in the management of the communications portfolio; to ensure that appropriate consequences follow; and then to build in safeguards so such problems do not happen again. “

In other words, during the summer of 2003, Ralph Goodale undertook to solve the scandal before it became The Scandal.

Even Mr.Goodale’s opponents wonder why a man of his character didn’t speak up sooner. “Goodale is a good and honest person but by taking credit, he implicitly admits he knew the details,” says Erin Weir, the recently nominated NDP candidate for Wascana . “He didn’t have to wait for the Auditor General. Why didn’t he bring the details forward sooner?”

Good question, says Opposition Finance Critic Monte Solberg, “In December of 2002, we demanded the Liberals launch a public inquiry.”

Hansard reveals the sponsorship scandal’s full pedigree: “…there is no more public forum, as we know, than the Auditor General. When legal issues are raised there is no more proper investigation than the RCMP. Both of those are already underway,” Ralph Goodale is quoted as saying on December 10, 2002.

As Finance Minister, Ralph Goodale attended his first G7 meeting earlier this month and, before that, completed two weeks of budget consultation. When he delivers his first budget in March, it is widely expected he will resume Martin’s tradition of overcoming lowered expectations by announcing a large surplus.

It would have to be some budget to preempt the sponsorship scandal. Indeed, the question inevitably arises whether Ralph Goodale is part of the sponsorship scandal’s solution or its symptom After all, ‘who knew what when’ is only one issue. Another is whether the competent authorities acted with due diligence in a timely way. In this light, Ralph Goodale, like his predecessor at Public Works, Alfonso Gagliano, and their immediate superior, Jean Chretien, is in the firing line.

This can’t be what the good soldier from the prairies hoped to accomplish when he came to Ottawa.

Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.

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