A sad era in politics

Historians to look back on a time of envelopes stuffed with cash

L'affaire Mulroney-Schreiber

Not since the Gomery commission have Canadians heard so much about politicians taking cash-filled envelopes. It makes you wonder how future historians will come to judge this sad period in Canadian politics.
Historians will start with the sponsorship scandal and look at how the federal government handed millions of tax dollars to Liberal-friendly firms, allegedly for Canadian unity. They'll look at how some of the cash was channelled into Liberal coffers by the same firms and reflect on former provincial Liberal minister Marc-Yvan Côté, who gave some of it to federal Liberal candidates in envelopes.
Then they'll move to the Mulroney-Schreiber affair and look at a newly former prime minister taking $300,000 in cash in hotel rooms from a well-connected lobbyist named Karlheinz Schreiber. By then, they might know why Brian Mulroney took the first $100,000 while he was still an MP, jeopardizing the integrity of his role as a MP.

They might even know how it was that a guy who ended up being wanted in Germany for fraud, tax evasion and bribes was befriended in Canada by Liberal and Tory ministers, a Newfoundland premier, former Liberal minister Marc Lalonde, who twice put up $100,000 in bail money for Schreiber, as well as a former prime minister who accepted cash from him.
They might know why Mulroney denied it for years and managed to get a $2.1-million settlement from Ottawa while denying it. Maybe they'll know if the money was connected to the Mulroney's government picking Airbus for an $1.8-billion contract.
But historians will know all that only if they're really lucky. The cash has an inherent quality: It is impossible to trace, leaves no cheque number or no credit-card record. Which is precisely why those who give cash to politicians do it, and why those politicians take it.
Schreiber put it in a nutshell in front of the ethics committee. There are times, he said, "when you can't sign a cheque or use a credit card." Giving big amounts of money to politicians or parties happens to be one of those times.
The problem is that the very idea of elected representatives taking untraceable cash has the smell of corruption. It can render them vulnerable to influence-peddling or blackmail.
Historians also will look at the cash donation Schreiber made in 1993 to Robert Charest for his brother Jean's leadership campaign for the Conservative Party. Schreiber says it was $30,000. Charest says it was $10,000 and legal. But being legal doesn't make it ethical. Both amounts are sizeable, in cash, and from someone who was notorious for expecting gratitude.
Surprisingly, Charest said he'd never heard of this before this week, although in 2001 in The Last Amigo, Stevie Cameron and Harvey Cashore wrote about it, naming Schreiber and Charest. So how likely is it that the premier was never made aware of a revelation in a book published while he was premier and that concerned him so directly?
Historians also will look at house leader Jean-Marc Fournier, who defended Charest's reputation by throwing the mud back at the Action démocratique and the Parti Québécois for their own taking of cash or illegal donations in the past. They'll surely wonder why Fournier never saw the impact of painting Quebec's three main parties, including his own, as vulnerable to corruption.
With apologies to Winston Churchill, when historians look back on these days of Canadian politics and cash-filled envelopes, they will say "this was not their finest hour."
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