The Liberals still don't get it

If it's business as usual with the ad sponsorship scandal, it won't be business as usual. It will be very bad news. For all of us. A news story in yesterday's Citizen said the fate of Paul Martin's government "hinges on one simple question: Will voters believe the prime minister when he says he knew nothing of the Quebec sponsorship scandal?" But it doesn't. Plausible deniability tinged with righteous indignation will just add fuel to the fire.

What's inflaming sentiments isn't the specifics of the scandal, it's the feeling that we're being played for suckers. So traditional, clever Liberal damage-control techniques will be a bigger disaster if they work than if they fail. To call a snap election and cobble together a slender majority would inject a dangerous dose of bitterness into our politics.

The Liberals will be tempted because it looks doable; the Globe and Mail's Christie Blatchford just wrote, "For all the outrage ... now, my hunch is that it will not last, and that once again, I will get the government that many of you deserve." And persons eligible for circumpolar junkets with the Governor General will be inclined to think their task is, as usual, to calm a temporarily unruly mob. Liberals and Red Tories mostly believe alienating Quebec nationalists is far more dangerous to the country than a few financial irregularities and that all decent people not currently hyperventilating know it. And as historian Michael Bliss noted, there is a class element to this crisis.

On Gerry Cammy's Sunday call-in show on CFRA, where my wife was a panelist along with Liberal Whip Mauril Bélanger, some callers were sufficiently agitated as to have some trouble expressing themselves. People who do not chatter for a living can be confounded with bromides about integrity, a dash of bafflegab about procedure and wounded innocence if directly attacked. But it's the wrong plan here.

One caller said she was living on a pension of $1,000 a month. So $100 million would suffice to double her pension for 8,300 years. But how much is it to Jane Stewart, who oversaw the HRDC billion-dollar shmozzle then landed a comfy job in Geneva with the International Labour Organization, which most regular folks have never heard of though it has heard of them? Or pollster Allan Gregg, who worried in Friday's Globe and Mail that "the audit process was running amok, and that Ms. Fraser was behaving more like the leader of the Official Opposition than the accountant she is." He reminded us hicks that $100 million over four years, to a government spending $180 billion a year, is like losing $15 out of $100,000. He called on the auditor general "to give an accurate, and not hysterical, picture" of "routine problems that will plague any organization that employs a quarter of a million people, and handles a fifth of a trillion dollars in taxpayers' money" and said "our government works very well." Not reassuring to people upset that government works very well for those in or near it.

Mr. Martin and his advisers may think their problem is the obvious one that if he knew about the scandal he's guilty and if he didn't he's clueless. But any attempt to finesse this dilemma will be too slick by half because what really bothers a lot of us is a third possibility: that Mr. Martin was a sufficiently savvy insider to operate on what some trades call a "need-not-to-know" basis. Since it was evident that penetrating questions about the sponsorship program would yield answers he could neither act on nor ignore, he was smart enough not to ask them. (Technically there's a fourth possibility: nothing bad happened. But I don't believe it and neither do you.) An endless inquiry and an impenetrable report months after an election would be more of this strategy. And so it would reinforce rather than dispel the public perception that politics is indeed "some kind of a game played by an elite few."

The Liberals may be tempted to think the old soft shoe will get them off the hook, and perhaps their rainmakers tell them they can win a majority based on Quebec, urban Ontario and the Maritimes. Having Jean Chrétien return and toss off cynical wisecracks like "I don't think anymore" is not a good sign. Even worse, a close confidant of Mr. Chrétien just told the press, "The primary concern now is that this has got to stop. We have to work for the unity of the party and prepare for the next election."

The danger here is not that such a strategy will fail but that it will succeed, and convince vast numbers of hard-working regular folks, especially west of Ontario and north of Toronto, that they are governed by scoffing elitists who regard millions of tax dollars as amusing playthings. Stolen, squandered, misplaced, what does it matter?

I doubt the Liberals can win a snap election. But I also fear it, because if they do, it will do lasting harm to the tone of Canadian politics. We can all lose.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson