It's bigger than a gang of crooks
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 14 February 2004)

Are we now enduring the last great scandal of the Chretien era or the first great scandal of the Martin era? If you're Paul Martin it hardly matters. You still have to make those panic-stricken appearances in Question Period. The business about "Chretien never told me anything" is the kind of card a politician plays only in times of desperation.

However this drama of political squalor unfolds, we should all spare a moment of compassion for the Rt. Hon. Paul. He plotted for 15 years or more to become Prime Minister. Finally he made it, and within two months the biggest scandal in decades exploded under his desk. Has there ever been a shorter honeymoon? Though many predicted the job would be tougher than he expected, no one said it would be this hard this soon.

But the Liberals, optimistic as always, smugly preparing to weather yet another ethical storm, still think they can lay at the feet of a small gang of Ottawa crooks (none of them Martinites) all the misdemeanours, outright thefts and other malfeasance committed in the course of the save-Canada sponsorship program. At mid-week Martin announced the theme in the Commons: "There was a very sophisticated cover-up ... by a small group of people."

How convenient that would be. But no, sorry, it wasn't sophisticated, it wasn't a cover-up, and it wasn't executed by a small group of people. Nobody ever called dishing out money by the bucketsful sophisticated. Nor can you call an orgy of paid-for patriotism (we'll sponsor your soccer tournament if you wrap it in maple leaves) a cover-up, when everything was as public as possible and everybody in sight was a card-carrying Liberal.

And the small cluster of criminals responsible? That's the hardest part to believe. The guilty are not some tiny cabal in the bowels of Ottawa but all those politicians, active and inactive, living and dead, who long ago turned the national unity issue into a spectacular exercise in bad faith. Most of them have never once violated the Criminal Code, because their actions were not only lawful but were grounded in an ancient and seldom questioned principle of Canadian government, a principle pursued as avidly by Conservatives as by Liberals: Buy off Quebec.

Ottawa, never less than condescending toward the non-Ottawa universe, treats Quebec as a dangerous beast that must regularly be thrown chunks of meat -- a big contract here, an IMAX movie screen there, yet another transfer of federal jurisdiction to Quebec. Federal appeasement of separatism, and of the blackmailers we delicately define as "soft nationalists," goes back farther than anyone living can remember.

If the people in Martin's office happened to notice all that money flowing in the direction of Quebec, as seems likely, they probably just waved a friendly goodbye. Certainly there was nothing unusual about it except for some technicalities of accounting and approval. Brian Mulroney delivered fat contracts to Quebec, if necessary at the expense of the West, while negotiating to increase the power of the politicians in Quebec City. And while he was unusually generous, he was hardly unique.

Nor was it unusual to show such generosity toward advertising agencies ostensibly working in the service of national unity. Advertising and patronage have walked hand in hand ever since politicians realized they needed professional help to make them attractive to the public. For a generation, Maclarens agency in Toronto worked faithfully for the Liberals in every election and then grabbed first place in line when government advertising contracts were being handed out. Dalton Camp, one of the most admired of Canadian Tories, set up his own agency to handle all the tourist advertising thrown his way by New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Ontario premiers, each of them properly grateful for his help in getting them elected. When the Trudeau government took office in 1968 its ministers realized that few ad contracts were going to Quebec-owned agencies since few Quebec-owned agencies existed. They set things right by creating a French-Canadian advertising community, when necessary assigning government accounts to companies that possessed nothing at the time except a post office box and a yearning for wealth.

In the sponsorship scam, the Chretien people not only handed national-unity money to ad agencies, it also asked an agency to evaluate how effective the money had been: Did the flagrantly federal sponsorship of all those sports and cultural events actually appease Quebec, or did it have no effect whatever? There was only one answer that could conceivably come back, the one that pleased both the government and the ad people.

But perhaps just reminding everyone that Ottawa has its uses (a point easily forgotten in a province drenched in separatist propaganda) may have swayed enough people to save us all from the human misery, political turmoil, and bureaucratic wrangle that would have accompanied the creation of a new state. Certainly Chretien will go to his grave believing that this gigantic boondoggle worked, and he could be right. And nothing in this week of scandal is as appalling as that possibility: Our country was saved by press agents waving flags.

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