Inquiry must find if tender system is for sale

How common is influence-peddling? That is what the probe should ask

L'affaire Mulroney-Schreiber

Brian Mulroney denies the $300,000 he received in cash from Karlheinz Schreiber in 1993-1994 was a return of favour for when crown corporation Air Canada chose Airbus over Boeing for a $1.8-billion contract. He also denies discussing that money when he was still prime minister.
But if it's to serve the public interest, the inquiry ordered by Stephen Harper will have to go beyond the allegations against Mulroney. It has to get to the story behind the story: the government's contract-tendering process and the role of company lobbyists. Is the process lax enough for influence-peddling to reach the highest echelons of power in Canada?
It's vital to find out if Mulroney's version is correct. If it isn't, the integrity of the office of prime minister will be called into question. But the story has a larger scope. While the Gomery commission let politicians off the hook, the Schreiber story hints at influence-peddling with elected representatives.

Schreiber also contends he scattered $10 million in so-called commissions out of the $20 million that Airbus handed him to grease the appropriate wheels. Were politicians, federal or provincial, among the recipients?
Schreiber also was an equal- opportunity lobbyist. Yesterday, La Presse reported that in Pierre Trudeau's time, Schreiber cultivated close ties with Liberal minister Marc Lalonde and asserts Lalonde would have paid $100,000 in bail money during Schreiber's hearings on his extradition to Germany.
In 1985, the Mulroney government also named 13 of its members and Tory organizers to Air Canada's board, three years before it approved the $1.8-billion Airbus contract.
In politics, one form of corruption involves people in government benefitting personally and financially from handing public contracts. When the Gomery commission failed to prove any politician had lined his own pockets with the sponsorship money, the Chrétien government escaped the corruption label.
But if some of Schreiber's allegations were ever proved true, former governments, Conservative and perhaps Liberal, would not be so lucky.
At the centre is one question: Is it possible for politicians or civil servants to be bought by lobbyists to favour a given company? The official tendering process is said to be clean and the rules that govern company lobbyists are clear, but is that really the case?
The sponsorship scandal showed how easy it was for some government officials to hand big contracts to Liberal-friendly firms. But taxpayers have the right to know if it's possible for financial influence-peddling also to enter the picture and involve elected representatives.
Former Parti Québécois minister Guy Chevrette once told a story publicly about being handed a suitcase containing $500,000 in cash when he was minister. He refused it. But the story shows such scenes occur not only in movies, but with real politicians faced with real bribes.
There's also the other story in this story. Harper's call for a public inquiry sounds a lot like one party faction declaring war on the other, similar to Paul Martin's call for the Gomery inquiry into Jean Chrétien's regime. Harper's refusal to call Mulroney before he announced he would name a special adviser and the PM's order forbidding anyone in his government even to speak with Mulroney also showed he tried to disassociate himself from Mulroney and the negative fallout from this story.
Harper's dramatic move also signals the Canadian Alliance faction, from which he comes, has had enough with the potentially embarrassing heritage from the Progressive Conservatives wing.
Harper is betting he won't pay as heavy a price for doing this as Martin did.
Still, beyond the party infighting, what matters is to know whether the contract-tendering process is corruption-proof at every level of government.

If it isn't, and Canadians find out some politicians can benefit from influence-peddling by companies, the Gomery commission will have been a rose garden compared to the disgust that would then overtake voters.
Mayors Make Their Case: The Gazette editorial board met with Westmount Mayor Karin Marks and Pointe Claire Mayor Bill McMurchie to discuss suburban mayors' submission to a National Assembly committee studying municipal reorganization. To listen to that discussion, go to:
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