The best, most lurid show in town

The Mulroney and Dhalla inquiries are media magic, at once lurid and relevant. But between the accusations, self-pity and sobs I occasionally wonder if there isn't a bit more to public policy.

I'm not saying these inquiries aren't important. If an MP has abused his or her position it is a fundamental breach of the spirit, and the letter, of self-government. But so are unfounded accusations against an MP. Our right to be represented in government depends on the ability of our representatives to carry out their duties without harassment. We cannot have Charles I bursting into Parliament, sword in hand, in pursuit of five MPs who deny his divine right to rule. Nor can we have MPs subject to frivolous proceedings to keep them from their work.

We must suspend judgment until we know the facts. But we must know them, even though this issue is a media nightmare for everyone.

The Liberals cannot afford to appear to be pounding on immigrant nannies, whose PR advantages range from race and gender on the left to hard-working aspirations for a better life on the right. Nor can the other parties afford to appear to be pounding on Ruby Dhalla for precisely the same mix of reasons. One can only hope MPs all realize they are parliamentarians first and partisans second, and bring the appropriate discernment and determination to the task of punishing wrongdoing by colleagues while shielding them from frivolous proceedings.

As for publicity, this case is one where justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. As opposed to the Mulroney inquiry, which brings to mind British humorist J.B. Morton's quip that "Justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be believed."

It may be the crushing, final proof of Canada's blandness that a former prime minister could take envelopes of cash secretly from shady characters, not tell the tax man for years, and there's actually nothing going on. It is certainly a troubling reflection on the dry rot in our public life that, despite a high-profile inquiry so distasteful Wednesday's Globe and Mail editorial cartoon had it on TV in hell, we still don't know what went on and probably never will. Unresolved questions and failed scrutiny undermine faith in our governing institutions far more than any other outcome possibly could.

So I want both matters settled in public, despite the unavoidable hint of soap opera. But it bothers me that they are all over the front pages, editorial pages and cartoons, while a different hearing I attended back on April 2 was so poorly attended by the press that if a pin had dropped there, the noise would still be echoing in the empty chamber. I refer to the joint committee on the Library of Parliament listening to members of the Association of Former Parliamentarians express concern that Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page is exceeding his mandate, usurping the role of Parliament and zzzzzzz.

Sorry. Are you bored? Bored with the way Parliament spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year with barely a second glance? Including tens of billions it doesn't even have, sticking our children and grandchildren with huge unpaid bills? Well, in dull days of yore when people had nothing more interesting to do than watch MPs flee kings with drawn swords, they cared whether those we sent to Parliament could hold the executive to account for how it spent money.

I went into that April hearing sympathetic to the budget officer and came out very worried about him. Patrick Boyer, one of the ex-MPs and my colleague in Breakout Educational Network, repeatedly said Page was in contempt of Parliament and surely such a claim deserves serious attention. But I'd settle for frivolous attention if the alternative is none at all.

I realize that, in the vernacular sense, contempt of Parliament is as Canadian as maple syrup. But Boyer's objection was specific, technical and convincing: that the Parliamentary Budget Officer draws on the authority of Parliament in participating directly in public debate, yet trades on weariness with politicians in presenting himself as an independent voice. Instead of strengthening MPs' voice, the argument goes, he usurps it.

And if you wonder how Parliament has any prestige to appropriate the answer comes back, convincingly, that MPs are the procedural repositories of our right to govern ourselves. However badly they do the job, and however badly we choose them, there is no alternative, so that's our voice being appropriated and we should pay attention.

It's certainly important to find out if parliamentarians are doing their jobs wrong. But we also want to make sure they're able to do them right. Even if no one looks glamorous, bursts into tears or pockets a thick wad of unmarked bills.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson