Happy holidays Canada from the House Ethics Committee .. leave the rest to historians

Dec 16th, 2007 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

The Canadian House of Commons Ethics Committee delivered the best possible holiday gift to the people of Canada as it closed down for the House’s seasonal vacation at the end of this past week. For the moment at least, our peace and goodwill will not be further distracted by any more sordid revelations about Brian Mulroney and Karlheinz Schreiber. Meanwhile Mr. Mulroney’s own December 13 appearance before the Committee has prompted various stirrings across the diverse land, including: “Ex-PM admits error as his sombre family looks on” (Vancouver Sun) ; “A bewildering story of how he got the cash” (Globe and Mail) ; “Mulroney tente de laver son honneur” (Le Devoir) ; and “Mulroney: I made a mistake” (Halifax Chronicle-Herald). Many will feel hard-pressed to decide who is less truthful – Mr. Mulroney or Mr. Schreiber? But author William Kaplan has probably made the most practical point: “what happened way back then is a matter of mostly historical interest and the historians can take care of that.” In the new year it ought to be time to get back to governing Canada today. (Or not, etc.)

Mr. Mulroney returns from ashes on December 13 …

Some commentators were impressed by former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s appearance before the Ethics Committee in Ottawa on December 13 – complete with his family in tow, and so forth. And some were not.

Mr. Mulroney’s main argument was that Karlheinz Schreiber is just a liar, who will now say anything to forestall his being sent back to Germany, where his almost certain fate will be to spend the rest of his life in jail. There was a time, earlier on, when Mr. Mulroney apparently saw Mr. Schreiber as businessman of integrity (though even this was apparently after former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed had warned his cabinet ministers to stay clear of Mr. Schreiber’s designs?). But then things changed.

Among the specific subjects Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Schreiber disagree on is the exact amount of money Mr. Schreiber gave to Mr. Mulroney for services to be rendered, in cash, in suitcases exchanged in hotel rooms – which is the international way to do business, it is said. Mr. Schreiber has claimed three doses of $100,000, for a grand total of $300,000. Mr. Mulroney says it was only three doses of $75,000, for a grand total of $225,000.

All very interesting, of course. Mr. Mulroney apparently now feels it was ill-advised for him to take this money from Mr. Schreiber, whatever the exact amount. It just looks bad, even though nothing at all bad was actually involved. But Mr. Mulroney notes that he did do international consulting work for the amounts tendered – with such now deceased offshore figures as Boris [Buy-Me-A-Drink’] Yeltsin. And he stresses that everything involved was “decidedly legal.” (And is this just another way of famously saying, with Richard Nixon: “I am not a crook”?)

Mr. Mulroney’s former speech-writer L. Ian MacDonald is still defending his old boss in print. At the same time another “Former deputy doubts Mulroney’s testimony” (Erik Neilsen in this case). Two other former Mulroney associates of sorts from the old days – pollster Allan Gregg and chief of staff Norman Spector – have had rather frosty things to say on TV as well.

According to CanWest News columnist Don Martin, the “truth is still out there, somewhere in the credibility void between lyin’ Brian and slippery Schreiber … heaven help us when this ruckus restarts in late January, with members firing up top-five witness lists amid promises that both the former prime minister and his former business associate will return to the witness stand … It’s incredible to think that we’re on the eve of 2008, and Brian Mulroney haunts us still.”

Globe and Mail columnist Rick Salutin put it this way: “Karlheinz Schreiber seems like a liar. He doesn’t admit it but implies it tacitly in all he says about what he does. When you ask if he lies, he smiles and says, No. That’s useful. You know where he stands. It doesn’t mean he never tells the truth, but you’re forewarned, you must examine it. Brian Mulroney swears that every allegation’ against him is completely false.’ That he tells the truth and nothing but. You decide who’s more believable.”

For what it’s worth, Canada’s self-confessed “national newspaper” the Globe and Mail has also asked its online readers “Whose testimony to the Commons ethics committee do you find more credible?” Some 84% finally answered Karlheinz Schreiber, while only 16% said Brian Mulroney. Another online poll from the same source (which Mr. Mulroney already believes has it in for him in any case), also shows that “Lyin’ Brian” is not without some broad enough continuing support, even among readers of the central Canada-based Globe and Mail. Here the question was: “In your opinion, who is the best former prime minister since Lester B. Pearson?” The results as of Sunday, December 16, 8 PM ET were: Pierre Trudeau – 52%; Brian Mulroney – 22%; Jean Chretien – 13%; Joe Clark – 5%; Paul Martin – 4%; Kim Campbell – 3%; John Turner – 1%. (I.e., Lyin’ Brian is no Pierre Trudeau, but neither is anyone else.)

As already noted above, William Kaplan, author of A Secret Trial: Brian Mulroney, Stevie Cameron and the Public Trust, has probably summed everything up most succinctly: “So where does that leave us? The current government has done nothing wrong. Mulroney left office in 1993. He danced and weaved and bobbed about in his testimony … Part of the problem, of course, is Karlheinz Schreiber. He promises Christmas, but it is April Fool’s Day instead, and the joke is on us for letting him distract us from important national business by promising details but delivering instead binders filled mostly with newspaper clippings and other useless junk … At most, nothing we have seen so far justifies a travelling road show. Hire a special prosecutor and let him or her look into this, and recommend whether there is any basis for criminal charges against anyone that have a reasonable prospect of success. Otherwise, what happened way back then is a matter of mostly historical interest and the historians can take care of that.”

And, oh yes, the really good news is that we won’t be hearing anything more from the House Ethics Committee, on any subject, until Monday, January 28, 2008 – or later.

(Well, we ourselves would agree that several members of the Committee have done quite well on all this waste of time and public money. And if you have had enough to drink it has all been a bit amusing, in some ways, maybe. But still, enough is enough …)

Oh, and meanwhile, yes, as Mr. Kaplan says, the “current government has done nothing wrong” – in the Mulroney-Schreiber affair at least. But in the next federal election it likely is going to be a bit harder to argue that in Canada Liberals are always corrupt, and Conservatives are as pure as the driven snow – even with as much snow as we have had in central Canada this weekend. And anyway, the main point for now is just season’s greetings to all, and to all a good night. Santa will be coming soon. And you’d better watch out – no matter whose side you’re on!

* * * *

Earlier counterweights reports: SCHREIBER JUST WANTS TO STAY OUT OF GERMAN JAIL .. is his testimony important anyway?

OTTAWA. THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 29. [UPDATED DECEMBER 4, 6, 8]. Today the so-called German-Canadian businessman Karlheinz Schreiber sort-of began his testimony before the Canadian House of Commons Ethics Committee. And somewhat against our better judgment, we’ve moved this running sore of a report on the Schreiber-Mulroney affair up from the bottom of the page where it’s been languishing for the past few weeks. There’s no doubt that Mr. Schreiber just wants to avoid being extradited to Germany, where he will almost certainly be clapped behind bars almost as soon as he arrives. But from his televised appearance today, there’s also no doubt he is a clever fellow. He has given and/or hinted at just enough vaguely salacious information about former Prime Minister Mulroney and at least some version of the Conservative Party in Canada to convince the right parliamentarians that he ought to remain on Canadian soil a while longer yet. But the two big questions are still whether any of this is of any real current public consequence at all – and whether it will hurt Prime Minister Harper’s current Conservative Party even if it is not?

Update on Mr. Schreiber at the Ethics Committee December 4 (and a brief note on December 6 and beyond)

The TV news is saying that “Brian Mulroney’s people” are quite pleased with Karlheinz Schreiber’s appearance before the Canadian House of Commons Ethics Committee today. And even though Mr. Schreiber clearly seems no longer friendly towards Mr. Mulroney (and even if you were only watching his televised antics casually yourself, in the midst of other more urgent business), it is easy enough to see why.

Even though, as the Globe and Mail has reported, “Mr. Schreiber alleges that he struck a financial deal with the former prime minister while Mr. Mulroney was still in office,” it is also true that “Karlheinz Schreiber says he never talked to Brian Mulroney about money while the former prime minister was still in office, although the pair agreed to work together on future business.” Moreover, “Mr. Schreiber said the $300,000 he eventually paid Mr. Mulroney had nothing to do with Air Canada’s agreement to purchase $1.8-billion worth of Airbus airplanes. Rather, the money was for Mr. Mulroney’s help to promote a light armoured vehicle plant … for Mr. Schreiber’s client, Thyssen AG.” (Which may have something to do with whether Mr. Mulroney will finally have to give back his Airbus legal settlement?)

Similarly, although Manitoba New Democrat MP Pat Martin has expressed disgust at all the influence peddling Mr. Schreiber speaks of with such enthusiasm and geniality (and even pride?), almost everyone who has been around even quite democratic politics anywhere in the universe cannot pretend to be seriously shocked by this activity. And finally, as Mr. Schreiber stressed today, he has been a happy warrior in the cause of “international conservatism” (or some such thing) for a great many years. And it does seem clear that, beyond his personal likes and dislikes for certain individuals, he is not likely going to do much more than he absolutely has to, by way of besmirching the name of the Conservative Party of Canada, even under Stephen Harper.

In the end all this has to make you wonder just how much longer the opposition majority on the House Ethics Committee is really going to want to question Mr. Schreiber? Fortunately for him, “the Ontario Court of Appeal has agreed to release Mr. Schreiber on $1.31-million bail. Former Liberal cabinet minister Marc Lalonde is among those posting bail, as is Mr. Schreiber and his wife, Barbel.” And Mr. Schreiber will, whatever else, be appearing before the Ethics Committee again next week. Meanwhile, he has also now dumped some huge wads of paper on the desks of MPs on the Committee. Maybe something more exciting will prove to be buried in all that? And maybe Mr. Harper’s party has been damaged already anyway in some degree. (Although a forthcoming poll that some were talking about on TV will apparently say exactly the opposite – the Conservative party in Canada for the moment is actually looking pretty good, as these things go in the country today).

UPDATE ON DECEMBER 6, 8: The Canadian Press has reported that “Schreiber ties Mulroney to cash from Airbus deal,” at his December 6 appearance before the Ethics Committee. There have also been some pieces of the large volume of documentation Mr. Schreiber released earlier that have raised further questions.

The counterweights editors’ own monitoring of the December 6 committee meeting in Ottawa has not suggested any great surge of fresh relevance and interest. A new poll reported on in the December 8 National Post, however, suggests that the Schreiber-Mulroney affair actually is (at last?) starting to damage even the Conservative brand presided over by Stephen Harper today. Somewhat, at any rate.   

Update on Mr. Schreiber at the Ethics Committee November 29 ..

Two new pieces of vague information became clearer today, at least to those of us who have been trying hard to avoid the subject as much as possible.

First, Mr. Schreiber originally planned to pay Mr. Mulroney $500,000 “for help in securing a military-vehicle contract.” But “he only handed over $300,000 because Mulroney didn’t live up to his end of the bargain.”

Second, there has been a quite direct link between Mr. Schreiber and at least the father of current Conservative defence minister, Peter MacKay.

Conservative members of the House Ethics Committee were nonetheless taking pains to show that the present party and government of Mr. Harper have had nothing to do with Mr. Schreiber (although it is interesting that he has a long, earlier history in Alberta).

This does for the moment seem clear enough. But it seems clear enough as well that anyone who up to now has seriously imagined, thanks to the sponsorship scandal which Mr. Harper’s party rode so hard, that all Liberals are corrupt and all Conservatives are pure as the driven snow will almost certainly find it harder and harder to keep entertaining such beliefs, if and as Mr. Schreiber continues to testify on Parliament Hill.

It does seem clear as of 7 PM tonight that Mr. Schreiber will be appearing before the House Ethics Committee again, and will thus avoid being extradited to Germany, for punishment of his (alleged) crimes there (“fraud, bribery and tax evasion”), in the most immediate future. He was unwilling to say a great deal today (or so he claimed), because he has been unable (from his prison cell in Toronto) to consult his 35,000 odd pages of business records, at his house in Ottawa. Apparently he will now be allowed to do this.

Is all this worth spending a lot of Canadian taxpayers’ money on? As urged earlier below, we still very much think no.

But there certainly are interesting questions for Canadian political historians here. As various Ottawa journalists have been urging late this afternoon and tonight, it is quite an interesting story as such things go. The current opposition politicians are bound to pursue it for their own ends – at least until it becomes clear that there is no real profit for them in the pursuit. So, as they say, if rape is inevitable, you might as well lay back and enjoy it. (Up to a point, in any case. And as compensation, we will shortly also be putting up a piece on the very high-minded subject of Senate reform in Canada, by one of our local experts on that gruesome subject!)


OTTAWA. Wednesday, November 14. Now that both current Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Mounties have agreed to further investigate the jailed German-Canadian businessman Karlheinz Schreiber’s financial dealings with former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, it may seem pointless to continue complaining that the whole exercise is a waste of the Canadian people’s hard-earned tax dollars.

But surely this remains the simplest truth.

It is more than 14 years since Mr. Mulroney served as “18th prime minister of Canada.” His performance at a dinner for his alma mater last night suggests that, whatever else, he has lost little of his unique talent for leading his country in foolish directions. The extent to which he may or may not have taken “bags full of cash in hotel rooms for unsavory purposes has become a matter for historians to decide, in the fullness of time.

The Harper Conservatives may deserve some vague blowback of the bad-tasting Gomery inquiry medicine that helped give them a minority government in Ottawa when all else failed. The rest of we the diverse people of Canada do not. We have a lot of better things to do with our time.


As foolish as it is, there can be no doubt that this remains for some Canadians a popular subject. In Ottawa today the House of Commons Ethics Committe voted to undertake its own mini-investigation, with testimony from both Schreiber and Mulroney. See: “Opposition wins vote to call Schreiber before Commons ethics committee” in both the Vancouver Sun and the Calgary Herald; and “Ethics committee calls on Mulroney, Schreiber to testify” on the CBC website.

This would now seem to make three investigations into the adventures of Schreiber and Mulroney long ago (and more recently?) etc. The other two are: the one commissioned by Prime Minister Harper, with University of Waterloo president David Johnston presumably now hard at work on terms of reference; and the one apparently being undertaken by the Mounties, just in case something criminal has taken place.

Meanwhile, a good friend of Mulroney’s, Luc Lavoie, has explained that he took the $300,000 in cash from Schreiber in 1993 because he was poor at the time, and needed to keep his wife and family in the style to which, etc. And Mulroney himself has apparently told friends that the whole thing was a “colossal mistake.”

So far this has not impressed many others in public life. See, e.g.: “Mulroney s’attire des sarcasmes … L’opposition se moque des besoins financiers de l’ex-premier ministre” ; “Mulroney admission not enough, Liberals say … Former PM concedes it was `colossal mistake’ to take $300,000 in cash” ; “How poor really was Mulroney?” ; and “Mulroney’s mistake’ doesn’t wash with MPs.” Meanwhile again, even the Toronto Star has noted that “Tories widen lead despite Mulroney-Schreiber flap.” And the same paper’s often interesting voice from Quebec, Chantal Hebert, has explained how, at this juncture in l’histoire du Canada, even “Quebecers don’t know what to make of Mulroney” (who is among other things of course an immaculately bilingual Quebec native son).

If you are crazy enough to actually want to look at something that is unambiguously friendly towards Mr. Mulroney, even now, consider two recent pieces by his former speech-writer (and excellent current editor of Policy Options), the elegant old anglo Montreal intellectual L. Ian Macdonald: “The Mulroney I know” and “He’s only just begun to fight.” Of course, of course, not everyone feels as Mr. Macdonald does. As just one of many, many cases in point, see, e.g: “Chretien has second thoughts about Mulroney libel settlement.”

Finally, for earlier documentation on earlier parts of this note (above), see: “RCMP and public inquiry to review Mulroney-Schreiber affair” ; “Harper approves Mulroney inquiry” ; “PM to call public inquiry into Mulroney-Schreiber affair” ; “Dion accuses PM of stalling” ; “The Last Amigo” ; and “Tax cuts fail to lift Harper’s fortunes.”

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