Brault testimony .. what is the alternative all over again?

Apr 9th, 2005 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

SOUTHERN ONTARIO. Saturday, April 9, 2005, 4 PM EDT. The ban on the Brault testimony to the Gomery inquiry in Montreal has now been partly or even largely lifted for just over two days. And the media and the politicians are spinning away.

Already, one kind of cynic might say, there are signs that the broad Canadian public outside Quebec has begun to lose interest. Yet, as another kind of cynic might equally observe, already outrage has spread across the land.

Certain difficulties appeared right after Mr. Justice Gomery lifted his ban Thursday afternoon. CBC Newsworld almost immediately ran footage of Jean Brault’s explosive testimony from the preceding several days. But the three journalists presenting the TV clips had to recurrently stop the proceedings, to explain just why what seemed like M. Brault’s complex and almost tedious testimony in French (with audio English translation) really was quite explosive.

At the same time, Jean Brault’s story is no doubt explosive enough. Anglophone journalists as eminent as John Ibbitson have pronounced that the resulting political scandal in Canada is “worse than Watergate.”

By the morning of Friday, April 8, on yet another hand, voting and taxpaying observers of Canadian federal politics could also read Tu Thanh Ha’s impressively concise and more neutral extended report on Brault’s testimony in the same newspaper.

In the end there still seems room enough for conscientious but worldly democrats who are not quite as close to being closet Conservatives as John Ibbitson to shrug their shoulders – and just hold their noses and vote Liberal again.

Some early numbers

If the picture M. Brault has painted is largely true, it certainly presents an extreme case of the seamy underside of Canadian democratic politics in the very late 20th century. Yet whether this finally adds up to anything like what the Parti Quebecois has called a “federal system of institutionalized corruption created by the Liberal Party of Canada” may long remain a matter of individual judgment.

A very early April 8 Globe and Mail online readers’ poll suggested that different individuals are making different judgments, based on the same facts in the same newspaper. The question here was “Should Jean Brault’s testimony bring a non-confidence motion against the federal government?” By the end of the day some 18,000 respondents – not an especially big number as these polls go – were pretty much equally divided: 50% Yes and 50% No.

Of course, even these kinds of numbers among readers of the Southern Ontario thinking person’s national newspaper could mean that in a fresh election Stephen Harper’s Conservatives would easily enough switch places with the Martin Liberals, so to speak, in the Canada-wide electorate’s present ranking of the available party talent.

On April 8 the smart money on Report on Business TV was calculating that the Conservatives would wait and see if the negative public reaction to Brault’s testimony outside Quebec started to seriously raise their current rather lackluster 26% standing in cross-Canada opinion polls. If it does, the story went, we the people of Canada will be having another federal election soon.

Then as early as April 9 an “Ipsos-Reid poll, conducted for The Globe and Mail and CTV, found 34 per cent of respondents across Canada would vote for Prime Minister Paul Martin’s Liberals, compared to 30 per cent for the Tories. That’s a dramatic shrink in the Liberal lead, from an 11-percentage point gap in February to only four points this week.”

In the same poll the “Liberals fell further behind the Bloc Qubcois in Quebec, and the Conservatives almost wiped out the governing party’s big lead in Ontario, the key swing region where shifts in support can cause changes in government.” In this unloved but inevitably strategic most populous region of the country “the gap between the two main parties shrank from 15 percentage points in February to only 4 points this week. The Liberals led the Conservatives 38-34 in the province, with the NDP at 17 per cent.”

In Search of Canadian Liberalism

If you remain sceptical that the Brault testimony finally adds up to anything at all seriously like what the Parti Quebecois has called a “federal system of institutionalized corruption created by the Liberal Party of Canada,” the biggest question about any fresh election so soon after the last one is still whether it could actually do any conceivable good.

Since the late 19th century probably very few people have ever voted for the Liberal Party of Canada as a matter of high moral or any other kind of principle. (Even if you set aside all higher debate on just how moral principles are practically expressed in any kind of workable democratic politics.) The Liberals have not been that kind of political party. No one, the old hands of an earlier generation used to say, ever admitted to voting for William Lyon Mackenzie King – the original Mr. Dithers who did so much to shape the traditions of both the federal Liberal Party and the Ottawa bureaucracy in the first half of the 20th century. (Remember “conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription”?) And yet he won elections, time after time.

Some of these ancient Canadian political traditions continue to thrive, in spite of all the more recent changes in the country. One was tidily summarized more than half a century ago by the unsung great Canadian economist and historian Harold Innis: “As evidence of the futility of political discussion in Canada there were Liberals who deplored the activities of the federal administration in no uncertain terms but always concluded with what was to them an unanswerable argument – What is the alternative?’ In one’s weaker moments the answer does appear conclusive, but what a comment on political life, that no one should vote against the administration for fear of worse evils to come.”

In the spring of the year 2005, “What is the alternative?” also seems another key question about Canadian federal politics that the Brault testimony finally will raise for at least quite a few Canadian voters. And no matter which way you twist the current array of political parties, it ultimately seems that the only possible practical alternative to the Liberal minority government led by Paul Martin that we have right now would be a Conservative minority government led by Stephen Harper – and rather fundamentally dependent on the Bloc Quebecois for whatever stability in office it may somehow manage to contrive.

Remembering your enemies and your friends

For those outside Quebec who are not staunch Conservatives already, it is possible to conceive of ways in which some form of Conservative-BQ de facto governing alliance could prove healthy for the future of Canada. In theory, Stephen Harper and Gilles Duceppe might even be able to get closer to solving a fundamental Canadian problem than anyone else has for a generation.

Yet there is very little in the apparent relationship between either the two men or the two parties to seriously nourish this kind of bold optimism at the moment. And there still seems quite a lot to suggest that any such governing alliance would likely enough just open the door to some version of near-toxic Canadian national oblivion.

Especially with all this in mind, some Canadians will no doubt continue to wonder just how much of a problem the picture that Jean Brault paints really is for the ongoing health of the national democracy. Jim Travers of the Toronto Star, one of the three journalists at CBC Newsworld trying to help make sense of M. Brault’s testimony on the afternoon of April 7, suggested that perhaps the most troubling thing the testimony seemed to be saying was “To make money from the Government of Canada, you have to spend money on the Liberal Party.”

Few will now remember that Oliver Mowat, the Liberal premier (and self-proclaimed “Christian Statesman”) who governed Ontario for 24 consecutive years in the late 19th century used to say something vaguely similar: “Other things equal, no administration is in the habit of preferring its enemies to its friends.” But the still longest-serving premier of Ontario did say this, and quite systematically practiced what he preached.

Parallel old pronouncements are still vaguely remembered in many different parts of Canada today, certainly in the Maritimes and in Western Canada too. For some very scrupulous Canadians, it is not at all easy to say, strictly speaking, just where the line between pronouncements of this sort and the world of Jean Brault’s testimony should be drawn in the early 21st century – in the wake of many different recent scandals in public and private sectors, churches, and other community institutions.

It is one thing to agree that the picture Jean Brault has painted (and again if it is largely true) is just too extreme a case of the seamy underside of Canadian democratic politics. It confirms the presence of too much behaviour that cannot be tolerated by the democracy at large, and must be stamped out in all political parties. But it is quite another thing to say that this means the Martin Liberals must be run out of office altogether, in the interests of some kind of high moral principle, seldom found in altogether vigorous action at any real-world level of government.

What is the alternative all over again?

It also remains true enough that Paul Martin himself did appoint the Gomery Commission to get to the bottom of the sponsorship scandal in Quebec.

Similarly, those who claim that Martin cannot possibly have been finance minister in the Chretien government without knowing what Jean Brault and his assorted business and political friends and acquaintances were up to are just advertising their own lack of practical experience in the real world of government and politics.

(Which may be a good thing, from various other points of view, but not from the standpoint of judging just what are and are not conceivable realistic relationships between cabinet ministers and political party fund-raisers, not to say bagmen, in Ottawa or anywhere else.)

The one thing almost everyone seems to agree on at the moment is that it will be the people of Canada who will finally make the ultimate practical political decisions about the Brault testimony, and whatever else the Gomery inquiry may bring forth, between now and whenever it will be. We won’t really start to get a full glimpse at what that will mean for a little while longer yet. And it still seems a bit too premature to say that it absolutely must mean the end of the current Martin Liberal minority government.

John Ibbitson may yet prove to have been prophetic last summer, when he told us that the Liberal Party of Canada would soon enough be going the way of the old and now-vanished Eaton’s cross-Canada department store chain. This may happen, down the road a way. But no prophecy of this sort is ever certain until it does actually happen. And it hasn’t happened yet.

For the moment, and perhaps especially in Southern Ontario – “the key swing region where shifts in support can cause changes in government” – the question still hangs in the air. At this exact point in the kinder and gentler history of Canada, what really is the practical alternative to the Paul Martin Liberal minority government we have right now? (And so far there still does not seem anything, even in Jean Brault’s explosive testimony, to suggest that Jean Chretien was fundamentally wrong only a short while ago, when he suggested that considerably less money has actually been “stolen” from the people of Canada, through the sordid goings-on M. Brault has described, than the Gomery inquiry in Ottawa and Montreal itself has already cost.)

Randall White is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History (Dundurn Press, 1985) and Ontario Since 1985 (eastendbooks, 1998). In an earlier incarnation he was employed in what is now the Ontario Ministry of Finance. For the past two decades he has worked as an independent policy consultant at all three levels of government in Canada.

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