Unity cowboy shoots wildly

Paul Martin made a big mistake by creating the Gomery commission and ensuring that the sponsorship scandal just won't go away


November 5, 2004 Friday
Paul Martin made a mistake. A big mistake. He thought the creation of the Gomery commission would free him of the stench of corruption that flowed from the sponsorship scandal by painting the Chretien clan as its sole culprit.
Instead, the commission has become one huge no-man's-land where landmines blow up daily. Some even explode dangerously close to the office of Martin himself back when he was finance minister. As in a classic Western, the commission is turning into a final showdown where Chretienites seem intent on taking the Martinites with them.
As far as cowboys go, Chuck Guite might prove hard to beat, although he's mostly of the lonesome type. While he aims mostly at Martinites, he doesn't seem to mind getting some Chretienites caught in the crossfire, if that's what it takes to salvage what's left of his reputation.
As he continues his five-day testimony at the commission, the former senior civil servant and sponsorship-program chief who worked under the public works minister, Alfonso Gagliano, keeps making startling revelations.
Guite alleges when Martin was finance minister, his office had its hand way, way down in the sponsorship cookie jar. He says Martin's office intervened in the contract-tendering process to make sure the communications firm Earnscliffe was awarded lucrative contracts for the finance department, even though it wasn't the lowest bidder. Then he changed his mind.
Earnscliffe, of course, is the influential firm that helped forge Martin's takeover of the Liberal Party and from which he picked a number of his advisers.
On Wednesday, Guite also aimed at Chretienites. In contrast to what Gagliano said, Guite stated he often met with the minister to discuss sponsorship contracts, sometimes over dinner. Pointing the finger directly at Jean Chretien's office, Guite said he also met regularly with the PMO's chief-of-staff, Jean Pelletier, and operations director, Jean Carle.
The sponsorship troika of Guite, Pelletier and Carle then decided which events would be sponsored, amounts they'd receive, and which agency would get the contract. Then he changed his mind. Guite also admitted he ignored government rules in the tendering process. This allowed him to hand most contracts to a very short list of Liberal-friendly ad agencies such as Groupaction and Groupe Everest.
Yesterday, Guite backpedalled a bit and said the choice of agencies was merely "suggested," not "decided" by Chretien's senior staff. Such subtle nuances aside, or changing versions aside, most testimony at the commission so far, point to the direct political involvement of Chretien's office.
In fact, how could there not have been direct political involvement from the PMO when the sponsorship program was a purely political initiative to begin with?
After Chretien almost lost the 1995 referendum, hundreds of millions of tax dollars went to try to reduce support for sovereignty by strengthening the Canadian identity of Quebecers. The weapon of choice was the sponsorship-based propaganda campaign to increasing the visibility of Canadian symbols and federal services in Quebec.
In a game where the stakes are this high, the Guites of this world, believers in Canadian unity at all costs, were mere mercenaries hired to do directly the kind of dirty work their political bosses couldn't sully their hands with directly.
Adding to the sheer indecency of it all, Guite also outlined how they went about getting the use of sponsorship money approved throughout the deficit-cutting period that started in 1995. To persuade the Treasury Board and various ministries to approve the programs, some of the heftier submissions were allegedly marked by the so-called bloc, or mechanical signature of Chretien.
Adding insult to injury, this was done at the same time Martin, as finance minister, was cutting transfer payments to provinces with Quebec being hit especially hard. Martin must have known that he was rendering Quebec more financially dependent on Ottawa through transfer payment cuts while he kept racking up surpluses - surpluses he now uses to invade provincial jurisdictions even farther.
In so doing, Martin might have created a powerful financial weapon to try to foster national unity by keeping Quebec dependent on Ottawa.
And yet, even in this continued state of financial dependence, even after hundreds of millions of sponsorship dollars were spent trying to increase the visibility in Quebec of the federal government and of Canadian symbols galore, support for sovereignty remains solid.
According to a La Presse-CROP poll published two weeks ago, 47 per cent of Quebecers still support sovereignty. Few Canadians outside Quebec seem to realize such support is still strong almost 10 years after the last referendum.
What is fascinating is this support also holds regardless of the continued leadership crisis at the Parti Quebecois or of its crushing defeat at the last election.
I wonder what self-confessed national-unity warrior Chuck Guite would say to that?

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