The luck of the Liberals


Friday, February 20, 2004
Liberals are likely to get away with the latest scandal and be re-elected, simply because there is no credible opposition party waiting in the wings
Will the sponsorship scandal finally bring about the fall of the Liberal empire? It probably would if voters had any palatable prime minister in waiting to pick from the main opposition parties. But they don't.
Although recent polls are catastrophic for Paul Martin's Liberals, they would be terminal if someone like Bernard Lord were to lead the new Conservative Party into the next election. You can almost hear Brian Mulroney on the phone: "Hi, Bernard. How's my friend? How are the kids? Wonderful. So, Bernie, tell me the story again of why you refused to make the jump to Ottawa because you were scared of Paul Martin."
With no real alternative in sight - anyone who can picture Belinda Stronach as the next prime minister, raise your hand - voters are left dangling and speechless. They are being treated to not only the biggest scandal to hit the federal government in decades, but to what is surely the most surrealistic, Kafka-like handling by a prime minister of such a major political crisis.
For the past two weeks, every new day brought a new damage- control strategy concocted by Martin's panic-stricken entourage. First, they trivialized the auditor-general's report of the sponsorship scandal. Then, came the version it was a small clique of 14 crooked civil servants who had chanelled $100 million of tax money to Liberal-friendly advertising firms.
Then, Martin changed his mind again. "It's impossible to believe there was no political direction." he said. Then, he turned himself into a moving target by appearing on every TV or radio program except cooking shows. No words were strong enough for Martin to distance himself from the Chrétien era. He was shocked, outraged, furious, scandalized, even sickened.
" I'll clean house," he vowed as he set up an independent inquiry. He quickly became more effective than any opposition party had been in years in painting the Liberal government as a corrupt regime, something he now couldn't escape, having been the finance minister throughout most of this scandal.
And now? It's trivializing time again. Scandal, what scandal? Caucus members are closing ranks in the wake of disastrous poll numbers that saw the Liberals plunge to 35 per cent from 48 per cent. There has been so much confusion La Presse editorialist André Pratte started off last week by asking if it were even conceivable Martin knew nothing of this scandal but wrote yesterday the prime minister is, in effect, white as snow.
Which raises the question: If Martin is as honest and transparent as his spin doctors are saying, why did he change versions and strategies so many times in the past two weeks?
The answer might be many ugly things lie behind this scandal and that it might be so complex it's impossible to handle.
First, there's the financial scandal angle: $100 million handed over to Liberal-friendly firms. Equally as important is the political genesis of it all: the creation of a large campaign to increase the visibility of the federal government in Quebec to battle sovereignists after the 1995 referendum.
But behind all this is also the ugly war of clans between Martin and Chrétien, which is the product of Martin's drawn-out putsch of his predecessor. Now that neither Chrétien nor his legacy will go away, both men continue to fight it out using this scandal against one another. Chrétien stays mum and lets Martin hang while Martin can't shake the suspicion that surrounds his own role in this scandal.
Martin has no one but himself to blame. He's the one who manoeuvred for years to oust Chrétien before he chose the risky tabula rasa approach: Pro-Chrétien ministers and even unknown candidates had to be ousted, too. That's how he turned a putsch into a civil war, underestimating the resolve of the pro-Chrétien clan to fight back.
Martin could have co-opted them - no one is more flexible than a minister who wants to keep his limousine or a candidate who dreams of one - but he chose to wage a war against Chrétien's people instead of Chrétien's vision. The fight became personal. Each time Martin created a new martyr, be they vedettes like Stéphane Dion and Sheila Copps or lesser-known Liberals like Steven Hogue and Raymonde Folco, he created a new soldier willing to take him on from within.
And if the old adage is true - he who lives by the putsch, dies by the putsch - Martin better hope he doesn't come out of the next election at the head of a minority government. If he does, all the pro-Chrétien Liberals he tried to oust will become a much bigger threat to him than any sponsorship scandal ever could have been. They won't be alone, either.
Can't you just hear Mulroney on the phone the day after the election of a Liberal minority government: "Hi, Bernard. How's my friend? How are the kids? Wonderful. So, Bernie, do your kids like to skate on the Rideau Canal?"

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